What’s a Little Carnage Among Neighbors?

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Looking at the tranquil scene, it’s hard to imagine anything bad ever happening here. Ducks and geese float lazily by as neighbors mow their lawns or sit in their backyards, sipping beer or iced tea.

I’m inside washing the dishes when my husband calls to me from the back porch: “Rachel, come see this! There’s a dog chasing the ducks.” The novelty of a dog chasing ducks is a pretty good indicator of how exciting things get around here. I step outside and, sure enough, there’s a spaniel paddling out in the middle of the pond, making a beeline for a large team of ducks. I’m not overly concerned. The ducks don’t seem to be. They let the dog get close, then easily sail out of his reach. I lean over the fence and watch. Moments later, two small boys whiz by. They’ve run from a house at the other end of the pond, and their faces are red and sweaty and their eyes terrified. “Chet! Chet!” They scream. “Come back!”

I stop one of them. “Are you all right? Do you need help?”

“Our dog has gotten out and he’s trying to catch a duck, ma’am.” (Even when kids are in panic mode here, they’re polite).

“I’ll get a leash and help you,” I promise.

“Thank you, ma’am.” The boy gives me a charming smile and resumes running and screaming.

I go back inside for a leash, a toy and a bag of dog treats, though I doubt they’ll be enough to lure a dog away from a real, live, duck. It takes me a few minutes to find the items. I walk back to the edge of the fence and start to open the gate. The little boys are running back toward their house, shoulders shaking with barely contained sobs and tears streaming down their cheeks. What happened in the space of a few minutes to upset them so? “What’s wrong?” I ask as they streak by. They stop and look at me with haunted eyes.

“Chet killed a duck!” whimpers the younger of the two. His chin is trembling. “He killed a duck and he has it in a man’s yard, and he’s eating it!” His older brother wipes his nose on the back of his hand and chokes out: “We couldn’t get him to stop. He wouldn’t let go, and now it’s dead.” He looks guilty and shell-shocked. The scene is no longer amusing. I can imagine what happened: the duck’s anguished struggle to survive, the dog tearing into it gleefully as the boys try to pull him off.

“That must have been horrible to watch,” I say. “It’s not your fault. You did everything you could.” Their shoulders straighten infinitesimally, before they glance behind them and see something that sends them running again. It’s my elderly neighbor from the end of the street, and he looks furious. He stops in front of the gate, demanding to know if the dog is mine.

“No, sir,” I reply. “I’m just trying to help.” I recognize the man, though we haven’t been introduced. I’ve only seen him once before, when he looked askance at my car with its Massachusetts license plates. He muttered something then, and I’m pretty sure it was “Damn Yankees”. I paste a friendly, respectful smile on my face. I see the children returning, their mother in tow. The man starts to shout something, the little boys cringe behind their mother and she gives him a death stare. He deflates and becomes visibly meeker. We walk together along the shore, dreading what we’ll find. In the man’s yard is a dog so puffed up with pride, he’s about to burst out of his skin. In his jaws is a very floppy, very dead duck. Blood-tinged feathers are everywhere.

“Bad, bad dog,” says the children’s mother. She seizes him by the collar and he looks slightly less self-assured. She introduces herself as Dana and apologizes to both of us.

“No problem,” I say with a smile. “It wasn’t my duck.” Dana smiles back.

“Well, this is my yard,” the old man says, scowling at the carnage. He’s making it very clear that he’s not picking up the mess. Dana doesn’t look the slightest bit intimidated, but I am.

“I’ll get a bag,” I say, running back home. I return with two enormous garbage bags. I hand one to Dana and hold the other open for her. I’m helpful, but not so helpful as to actually handle the duck. My stomach rebels just thinking about it. She covers her hands with the plastic bag and picks it up, hastily shoving it into the bag I’m holding. It’s heavy and limp. I feel dizzy and squeeze my eyes tightly until the world stops spinning. She takes it from me and ties it shut. I hear a faint “quack” and nearly jump out of my skin. No one else seems to hear it. I tell myself it’s coming from a duck across the pond. The spaniel lunges at the bag, but Dana gives him a scorching glare and he wilts like a lettuce leaf. Impressive. This mom is a badass. I file the look away to use on my own children when they’re mouthy.

Now that the duck is bagged, the old man thaws a bit. “I only yelled at the boys because I was afraid the gator was going to eat their dog,” he explains. “And it looked like they were going to go in the water after him.” The gator? I’m terrified of alligators. I used to have nightmares about them coming out of toilets and chasing me up trees. He produces his phone and shows us footage of a six-foot-long gator hissing at him, right where we’re standing now. “I took this a few days ago,” he says, relishing my response. I scan the water nervously. At that moment, I realize my kids have let themselves out of the gate and are walking along the shore toward us. I feel hysteria rising in my throat and choke it down. They’re up high enough that the alligator can’t lurch out of the water and drag them to a watery death. I think.

Dana takes this in calmly. “I’ll call the Nuisance Alligator Hotline and tell them we have an aggressive one on our hands,” she says. I think we’re both wondering why he bothered to film the creature but not notify the authorities. She apologizes to our neighbor and thanks me for my help. I walk with them until we get to my yard, taking great care to keep between my children and the water’s edge. Buster, my Shi-tsu, hurls himself flat on the ground as Chet passes by. His tiny body quivers with respect and envy. He knows that if he went after a duck, he’d get pecked to death. The spaniel tosses his head and grins, his tongue lolling out. He is having the best day of his life. Dana looks at him sadly. “I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to keep him if he keeps busting out,” she says with a sigh. “It’s very nice to meet you, despite the circumstances. Our kids are the same age. We should get together some time.” I agree. I would like to study her and learn the art of intimidation. She and her children walk home. I watch them a moment, wondering what she’s going to do with the contents of the bag.

That evening, I take Buster for a walk past her house. The most delicious aroma of grilled meat hangs heavily in the air. I can’t place it. Is it beef? Chicken? Is it…duck?

Kids: Great for the Self-Esteem

Zoë: “Mom, could you dye your hair orange and wear a belly shirt and be Kim Possible for Halloween?” She pulls up my shirt to test the effect.
Me: “No, I want to be a pirate.” (And keep my belly under wraps, thank you very much).
Silas (admiringly): “Your belly is round and poofy and fatty.” He leans over and gives it a kiss.
Me: “Uh, thanks.” He means well.
Silas: “Why do you have so many moles?”
Me: “They just grew.”
Silas: “I’m sorry you grew them, Mom. I’m so sorry.”
Me: “I’m not. I kind of like them.”
Zoë: “How do you get rid of them?”
Me: “Surgery, but I don’t want–”
Kids: “Surg-er-y! Sur-ger-y! Sur-ger-y!”

My husband is fixing me a cocktail now, to calm my nerves and contribute to the poofy belly.

Mama Bear

A week and a half ago, my children started their new school. My family moved cross-country just a few weeks ago, from a tiny town at the edge of Massachusetts to a sprawling suburb outside of Jacksonville, Florida. We moved to be closer to my husband’s parents. He’s an only child and we were glad to be able to do so. It’s lovely to be within easy reach of them.

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It’s beautiful here on Fleming Island, with grass so green it looks photoshopped, sprawling golf courses, pretty little ponds here and there, and the St. Johns river hugging us on one side and Doctors Lake shimmering enticingly at us from the other. Did I mention the Spanish moss? I glory in the stuff. It droops from the trees like a misty mantilla veil, and it’s everywhere.

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Erving, our old town, was lovely too, and there are many things to miss about it, but most of all, I miss my children’s old school. It has a little over one hundred students from kindergarten to sixth grade, and seemingly almost as many teachers. As I mentioned before, my son is on the autism spectrum. The little school and its wise, compassionate teachers were perfect for my children. The students understood my son’s issues and were patient with him. They celebrated his differences. He felt loved. I could write dozens of blog posts on just how incredible my children’s last school is.

I knew that whichever school we enrolled him in after moving would have a tough act to follow. His new school is highly rated, in the top ten percent of public schools in Florida. The school population here is about seven times what it is in Erving. The teachers we’ve spoken to all seem pleasant. My daughter, who is neurotypical (“normal”, whatever that means) has expressed how much she likes her teacher and her classmates. She wakes up every morning looking forward to the day. My son, however, drags his feet and begs to stay home. Change is hard for every child, but for those with ASD, it’s excruciating. He can’t easily communicate, so that leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. My imagination runs wild, trying to troubleshoot for every possible scenario. Are the other children kind to him? Is there a bully in his class? Are the teachers able to give him the attention he needs? Could they be judging some of his stimming (bursting into song during class, random shouts, waving his arms) as naughtiness? My mind goes to some terrifying places pretty quickly. My thoughts range from “maybe he’ll have to repeat third grade” to “maybe they’re locking him in the basement” (even though nobody has basements in Florida, and his teacher seems very sweet).

My husband and I have been able to make some contact with his teacher, and we’ll be going to an IEP (Individual Education Plan) meeting early next week, to discuss what services he’ll get. Oh, how I’ve been over that meeting in my head a million times already. I’ve been imagining all kinds of conversations. Some end with me saying: “This is going to be a great school for him; you folks really understand my son,” but most end with me snarling at the staff: “Oh yeah? You’ll hear from my lawyer about this, you child-hating fiends!” (I don’t have a lawyer).

I’m really a sane person, I swear I am. And I’m definitely not a helicopter parent. I never thought the term “Mama Bear” applied to me. But here in an unfamiliar place, my protect-at-all costs instincts are raging and threatening to override my judgment. I suppose it doesn’t help that I’m in perimenopause and experiencing hot flashes and mood swings. Heaven preserve those poor teachers from raging Mama Bears like me. Amen.

Taboo Subjects

I want to impress potential agents and publishers with my social media prowess, so I resolve to write at least once a week in this thing. I love to write. I really do. Unfortunately, I can’t blog about what’s always on my mind, which is my kids. I mean, I can blog about them a little bit, but I’m forever trying to find the right balance between what they’ll be fine with my sharing and what they won’t be. A couple years ago, my now 8-year-old son requested that I not talk so much about him on Facebook. It’s fine if I share a few snippets of his life, as long as I’m careful not to post anything that will embarrass him. That isn’t always easy to discern. The boy has no problem with peeing in the front yard before God and all of suburbia, and he proudly announces his toots, but he’s become upset overhearing seemingly harmless things said about him. My daughter is 6 now, and starting to glare at me suspiciously when I start typing on my phone after she’s said something funny, so I’m pretty sure she feels the same way as her brother.

I would love to blog all about them and my struggles and joys raising kids. Writing helps me process. I have a lot to process with raising these two, especially regarding my son, who has autism. He is a truly radiant human being and makes me so happy, but sometimes it’s difficult to figure out why he does some of the things he does. What’s harder than that is trying to explain him to a world of other people who like everything and everybody well behaved and predictable. It freaks them out to see a child who doesn’t fit a familiar mold. Honestly, coping with other people’s expectations is the hardest part about raising a child with autism. There are shiploads of good, kind gentle people in the world, and there are a few handfuls that I would like to smack when they give my sweet boy judgmental looks. My problem is that I think too much about the ones I’d like to smack.

I keep a journal, but it’s not the same as putting my thoughts out there into the universe for someone else to read and relate to. Also, my kids are hilarious, a veritable gold mine of pithy quotes and poignant episodes. It’s torture to have to think long and hard about what I will and won’t say about them, especially as I’m a very open person. It took me the better part of 40 years to develop the little bit of filter that I now have. However, I love my kids, and part of loving is respecting, so I’ll try to balance respecting their wishes with who I am. If I suspect I’ve crossed the line, I’ll do as my friend Beth suggests and “put another dollar in the therapy jar”.

 

Until Next Time,

Rachel