Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Naomi's Dream Come True

Naomi and Hannah tolerated soccer last fall, and maybe enjoyed it a little, but when Hannah was enrolled in ballet class with her best friend last September, it was her dream come true. Naomi was clearly a little jealous at the time. I think even a couple tears were shed when no one was looking. "Naomi," I consoled her, "we have to be happy for Hannah right now, and we will find something that is special and is just for you--I promise, but you have to be patient." She nodded with a determined smile then, and did what she is so very good at doing--she was happy for Hannah.

Every Tuesday evening since last September Naomi has dutifully piled into the car and driven with us to Hannah's ballet class. She has sat in the waiting room and done homework or read books while Hannah had the time of her life twirling to Disney tunes. Matt and I have considered enrolling Naomi in ballet as well, and we've considered giving soccer another go-around next fall, and while these would have been alright, they weren't just perfect for Naomi.

One of Naomi's intricate horse drawings
Naomi's true love is horses. She draws horses--quite well in fact--she reads about horses, and every single art project she has produced in art class this year has been horse-themed: horse drawings, horse paintings, horse engravings, and horse sculptures. Unfortunately, the only barn near our house has been turned into a laundromat and we're probably not moving to an acreage where we can support a horse any time in the next century. We don't know anyone who owns horses, and we haven't been able to make friends with any Amish families yet. It didn't seem likely we were going to be getting her anywhere near horses.

I had heard once or twice of a charity stable nearby that enrolled children with special health needs in a horse riding program and offered scholarships to those with financial need, but I hadn't seriously entertained the possibility of applying for Naomi because of another insurmountable obstacle: child care for my other four kids. I couldn't bring them along to a stable for liability purposes and I felt it was too much to ask someone to watch all my kids once a week for two hours. I impose on people enough just to get my kids to all their doctors' and therapy appointments.

But a couple weeks back an older couple from our church approached me and asked if I'd ever heard of this stable. I said I had, but I just didn't think it was feasible to get Naomi there every week without childcare for my other kids. They countered that they thought it would be so good for Naomi that they were willing to come to my house and watch my other kids if needed. This generous offer and the application packet that they placed in my hands was just the spur in my side that I needed. Maybe it was possible after all.

I mentioned, cautiously, to Naomi that this might be a possibility sometime this summer. She was cautiously ecstatic. I filled out the application, and wrote a letter for the scholarship application detailing how I thought the program would be helpful to encourage Naomi to get her nose out of books, get off the couch, get moving, and make friends. I dropped the medical release forms by her doctors office and we waited. Finally the doctors' office called last week to say that the release form was ready for me to pick up. When art class was cancelled this morning and Matt happened to have the morning off, I had the idea of taking Naomi with me to the stable to drop off her packet. Matt wasn't so sure it was a good idea to get her all excited, just in case it didn't work out.

So I called this morning and found out that there is quite a waiting list for most kids, but after describing Naomi's age and medical conditions the lady replied, "Actually, I do have an immediate opening in one class for that age and ability group. Why don't you bring her by to drop off the packet, and we'll see if she might be a good fit for this class." She also assured me that no qualified applicant would be turned away because of inability to pay for the classes.

Naomi bounced up and down with an enormous grin on her face when I told her we would be going to have a look around the stable this morning and that it looked like a reasonable possibility. She could hardly contain her enormous sheepish grin as I got ready to leave. As we pulled out of the driveway I asked her when the last time had been that she and I had gone anywhere together, just the two of us. She thought a moment and said, "I think it was last summer when I had that really bad stomach ache and fever and joint pain and we went to the hospital." I told her it was definitely time for us to have some fun together.

We we greeted at the stable by the program director whom I'd spoken to on the phone. She took us back to the arena where two kids were riding horses with adults walking beside them, and a little boy with apparent Down Syndrome sat all geared up awaiting his turn. We watched the horse riders and the director talked with us and watched Naomi's shining face. It was decided that Naomi was the perfect fit for the one open position that remained. It is a high-ability group of three other kids Naomi's age, where the goal is to learn to ride independently. It also includes learning to brush, saddle, and care for the horses. The class started four weeks ago, so Naomi will be able to jump into the very next session, this Thursday evening!

"I'm so glad you called today," she remarked, "the child who was supposed to be in this class hasn't been able to make it, and I've been trying to fill this position, but I just couldn't find anyone who is a perfect fit, until now."

Naomi and I both had trouble containing our excitement on the way home. "You know, Naomi," I said, "a lot of people would see that as a fortunate coincidence this morning--that the doctor's form was ready, and art class was cancelled, and Daddy had the morning off of work just in time for us to drive up here right at the time they needed to fill this position--but I think God had that position in mind for you all along. He can put our lives together just like a puzzle and make things fit just the way he wants." She had to agree.

We called Matt and Grandpa Johnson to share the good news, and we talked about all the great things Naomi had to look forward to. "You know," Naomi mused with a little laugh, "for me, this is like a dream come true." The only problem now is waiting until Thursday.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Head Banging

Yesterday, as I lingered over my lunch in the church basement and discussed with some friends when I might realistically expect my girls to be able to make meals, our conversation was halted by a horrific scream. I recognized it immediately as Toby.

He came running around a corner, holding his head and wailing as I got up to meet him. He had been pushing a little toy shopping cart and had gone racing through the church kitchen, slipped on the floor, and banged his head into a corner of a wall. I caught him up in a hug and shushed him for a second, holding his head. When he caught his breath I asked him to point to where it hurt and he pointed to the side of his head opposite the side I was hugging him from, "Right, here!!!" he cried, and continued sobbing. I lifted my hand from that side of his head and saw that my hand was covered in blood. By this time Matt had arrived on the scene and I sent him for a wet paper towel because it was hard to tell with a mass of matted, bloody hair, just exactly what we were dealing with. After the initial dab with the paper towel--which Toby protested to the hilt--it was clear that the injury wasn't too large or serious, but we needed to get the matted hair out of it to assess it better.

We decided to hold him over the kitchen sink and gently spray his head with warm water to wash the wound and get a better look at it. Toby did not appreciate this act of first aid. He screamed...and screamed some more. I was actually taken aback by what we saw after the blood and hair had been cleared away. The wound was about 1/2 in long, 3mm wide, and 3mm deep, and oozing a continous trickle of blood down the side of his head.

I called over a few parents for advice on whether or not we should take him to the ER. The bleeding was mild, there wasn't much to stitch but using some dermabond glue to hold the skin together might have minimized the scarring. After some discussion we finally decided against going to a doctor, but four hours later, when we were at Matt's parents' house and Toby's head was still oozing blood I second guessed myself. We called a few more people and once again decided it really would be just fine without intervention. We washed the wound again, put some triple-antibiotic ointment on it and took him home to go to bed.

Today he is acting 100% normal, has a healthy-looking scab on the wound, and says his head doesn't hurt at all. As a father of 5 boys assured me yesterday, we will likely see much worse in years to come. It's amazing that with 5 kids who have had most every illness in the book, we have never really dealt with traumatic wounds before--zero broken bones, zero stitches, zero concussions. I'm glad we got a mild introduction to the world of traumatic injury this time.

For awhile this morning I entertained the thought that this might be all the worse we see as we raise our boys. Then, as I was in the basement putting some laundry in the wash, Toby came down and picked up his scooter. "I'll be careful not to get any ouchies this time," he assured me. And two breaths later he was whooping, "I can go so, soooo fast! Look at how fast I can go!"

Yup, with that kind of carefulness, I'd better be prepared to meet more trauma in my lifetime.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Photo Album: Toby Turns 4, and Our New Mixer

I don't have time for lots of words today, but since pictures are worth a thousand this should suffice. Last Saturday we celebrated Toby's 4th birthday. I'm really not one to encourage idolizing Disney movie characters, but with their images plastered all over everything sold to children, it's hard to avoid exposing children to them. You will notice a certain Disney movie theme in everything that had anything to do with Toby's birthday. It just happens.

He wanted Sally on his birthday cake. She is Lightning McQueen's girlfriend, for those of you who don't have a male child under age twelve in your household. I don't know why she is the car of the month in our house, but, as everything must be Sally-related right now, I did my best to create her from blackberries. This was tricky, and time consuming, but I'm pretty thrilled with the way it turned out. The frosting is whipped from melted sugar and egg whites since I'm not able to use powdered sugar (because it contains cornstarch) and the colors are just fresh strawberry slices and blackberry pieces, painstakingly placed with care. With a birthday cake like this, who needs food dyes?

He, of course, enjoyed tons of birthday presents featuring every kind of Lightning McQueen paraphernalia possible and a new GeoTrax set with a Sally car, which I think he liked.

In other news, our brand new Kitchenaid Pro 600 mixer arrived on Tuesday! I didn't get a chance to get it out, read the manual, wash the parts, clear my counters, and try it out until yesterday, but we had a lot of fun making cookies once we finally got it up and running. Rearranging my counters and drawers got me motivated to thoroughly reorganize my kitchen. I threw away or packed away the stuff I never use and got my drawers in a much more appealing state. Maybe my kitchen won't be such a bad place to spend my life after all.

I mixed a double batch of cookies in my mixer yesterday while Hannah copied my every move and mixed up her double batch in her bowl. All was well until she tried to stir her dough by hand and was still working hard long after I had whipped mine together and gotten them in the oven. Her melodramatic efforts were so humorous I decided she would make a good commercial for the Kitchenaid mixer, so we made one up, just for fun. It's in the two parts of video below.

Aren't we silly? Oh well, we had fun. And we're still having fun eating those cookies today!

I've been getting five gallon buckets from a local bakery for free. I use them to store the bulk flours that I bought. Yes, they're coated in nasty day-old frosting and doughnut glaze and require a good bath in the tub before use, but hey, at about a $6 value each, I've saved us $36 so far.  Some people like flower arranging. I enjoy flour arranging.

And when the bakery gets done with another four buckets I'll be adding brown rice flour, oats, rice, and dried beans to my stash. For now these are living in my freezer, which I haven't quite managed to fill with frozen meals yet, but I'm well on my way. I'm hoping to get some extra batches of cookies and pancakes in there today and tomorrow.

It feels good to be organized and equipped. Most days I feel prepared and on-top of things, and for those days when I'm not, at least I should have something in the freezer for back-up. Thanks again to all who have donated, prayed, and encouraged our family in the last few weeks. Hopefully food preparation won't have to dominate my thoughts now, and I can get back to just enjoying my kids and sharing them with you.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Toby's been going through another overly-attached-to-Mommy phase. He's been absolutely flipping-out when I leave him with Matt to run out to the store, and I honestly haven't a clue why. Last night as I tucked him in bed he asked me, "When I sleep, what will you be doing, Mommy?"

"I'm not going shopping, Toby," I reassured him. "I'm going to give Daddy a haircut and then go to bed. I will be right here."

"No!" Toby cried, "Don't sleep. I don't want you to sleep, Mommy."

And while I felt like saying something like, "I can tell--that's been abundantly clear since the day you were born," last night I really felt his three-year-old, irrational sadness and decided to assure him that it is in his best interest for me to sleep and he will be just fine.

While I shake my head at Toby, I know, even in my old age, I still behave that way with God--secure and confident when he's snuggled up beside me, but questioning if he's still taking care of me when it feels dark and silent. But while I imagine he might be tempted to roll his eyes at me ("How many times do we have to go through this, Kathy?"), instead, it seems he always takes the time to reassure me that he's not far away.

This week, after another week of despondency over my life-sentence to the kitchen, God has sent me, through his hands and feet here on this earth: a home-cooked meal from a friend whose children also have special diets, an anonymous box of grocery goodies dropped for us at our church, and a brand-new thirteen-cubic-foot chest freezer so that I can stock-up on sale items and bake ahead to save for later.

Inside the box of groceries along with the Cinnamon Chex and clementines and gluten-free cookies was a jar of molasses--an unusual item to include in a box of groceries for sure, but oddly enough, it was the only item that was on my shopping list at the time.

Yesterday I was on top of things: I had warm bread just finishing up in the bread maker when I woke up so that I could pack sandwiches for the kids to eat after art class. I spent the afternoon making a double batch of italian soup--one for the crockpot and one for my new freezer--and came home from ballet class to hot soup and another fresh loaf of bread in my bread maker. And I felt genuinely thankful for God's provision to me.

Last night the phone rang while I was changing Elijah's messy bottom. I snatched it up and pinned it to my shoulder while I pinned Elijah to the floor. I was talking to Elijah, and Toby, and the caller all at the same time so it took awhile for the purpose of the call to register. I needed to pick out my favorite color for my new Kitchenaid Pro 600 stand mixer. Wow.

Really today I just feel very humbled, very grateful to the generous people who have given much--this isn't a cheap model--to buy this for me. I am still digesting their generosity, and God's abundant provision. And I'm excited like a little kid for Christmas to get my new mixer and to be able to make big huge batches of cookies and pizza dough and other goodies (and then store the extra in my new freezer) without breaking my spoons, straining my wrists, or burning out the motors on my hand mixers anymore.

Tonight, if Toby pleads for me not to sleep, I think I know what to tell him, "Little Toby, even when you can't see me, hear me, or feel me, even when you're sure I'm not paying any attention to you at all, I'm always taking care of you. Always."

"I lift up my eyes to the hills--
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth...
He who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep."

-Psalm 121:1-4

Friday, February 8, 2013

Setting the Table

This post has bounced around in my mind for a few weeks because it is what has been most often on my mind, but hasn't made its way to the Internet until now because I wasn't sure if I really wanted to lay  all of our woes out there for the entire cyber world to read, and because I don't want this to sound like a gripe session or a plea for help, since it is neither. I've finally decided to share, because I figure that I could only be an encouragement to anyone else out there with similar struggles if I am willing to be transparent here, and because I feel like keeping a blog about my life that doesn't include talking about what I spend 90% of my time and energy on would just be a lie.

Without exposing all the gritty details, let's just say that our food budget has been shrinking. Matt's employer, like so many employers now, is cutting overtime hours in an attempt to remain in the black, and this has made the budget, well...tight, to put it nicely. I am certain we are not the only family in this situation with the economy as it is right now, and as I look cross-culturally, and over the last few thousand years of human history, I know I have nothing to complain about. We are certainly not starving. But, maybe because I grew up in the most prosperous country in the history of the world and am used to tasty meals popping out of a microwave or pouring forth from a box, I am finding our recent shrunken food allotment to be a real challenge.

Feeding a family of seven on $400 per month takes a lot of planning and a lot of work. Add to that our dietary restrictions which cross off some of the cheapest and most readily available foods, and it is almost all-consuming (no pun intended) for me just to keep everyone fed.

In a month with 31 days, I have $12.91 per day to spend on groceries. Divide that by 7 family members and I am feeding each person in my family a diet free of gluten, corn, dairy, and most food additives for $1.85 per day! I am beyond clipping coupons and shopping sales. I'm cutting our meat consumption in half, cutting the variety of fresh fruits and veggies we used to be able to eat and now relying heavily on 175 lbs of gluten-free flours that I bought in bulk on the Internet. I shop at Aldi and I shop at an Amish store where I can buy in bulk, but certain special-diet products have to be purchased at other stores, like condiments without high-fructose corn-syrup (which Hannah cannot have), or the rice and coconut milks that I rely on since Naomi and Toby cannot have milk. What do we eat? Potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, rice, beans, small portions of meats that are on sale, bananas, apples, some other fruits or vegetables if they're on sale, and now a lot of home-cooked gluten-free flour based items. I'm thankful for the flours we could buy, and everyone in my family is happy to be able to have homemade bread, biscuits, cookies, pastries, pastas, and pizza crusts. But I am so tired of cooking.

I'm really struggling with this. Struggling to keep up, struggling to be content. I used to hear stories about how my grandmother, a farm wife, spent her entire life in the kitchen. From before dawn until after dusk she cooked, served, and cleaned up meals. When one meal was over, it was time to start the next. And I used to think, "What an awful way to spend a life." But now I'm living it.

We cannot afford now the Cinnamon or Honey Nut Chex that were our breakfast staples. It's up to me to turn that flour into pancakes or biscuits or low-sugar cookies if my kids are going to eat breakfast. It's up to me to make bread, snacks, treats, and meals or there is literally nothing to eat. When the kids go to the cupboard they find dried rice, dried beans, and bags of flours and starches. Unless there happen to be bananas and apples in the house, if I don't cook, they don't eat.

Really, we're not starving. Tonight we had a huge ham that I had found marked down for being close to its "use by" date, with some homemade bread, green beans, potatoes, and a cantaloupe that was on sale. I blended some frozen bananas and we ate banana "ice cream" for dessert. There's a huge pile of ham left, so I'll soak some beans tonight and we'll have ham and beans tomorrow, and probably a potato and ham skillet the next day. We're healthy, we're fine. It's just that I'm so tired of it, and there seems no end in sight.

On Monday I made a homemade lunch, served and cleaned that up. Then I went shopping at three different stores to stock us up on our staples for the month. Then I came home and made a homemade dinner, served and cleaned that up. I weighed my dilemma as Matt tucked the kids in: tomorrow was the day I took the kids to their homeschool art class and packed a lunch to eat with the other families after class. I knew if I stayed up late to bake bread that night and packed sandwiches in the morning I would be able to rest after art class and chat with the other moms, but I was just too tired. Instead I went to bed early and packed some sausage, rice noodles, and no-corn-syrup spaghetti sauce to cook after art class.

Even though I made that choice, I resented standing at the stove on Tuesday after class. The other moms plopped their zero-effort sandwiches in front of their children and sat talking and laughing together. I stood, browning sausage and boiling noodles by myself while Elijah screamed impatiently in a high chair, and I resented it. I wished I had baked bread the day before. I hated that that was my only option. I hated that I had to cook every bite of food that could pass my family's mouths. When a friend joined me in my misery at the stove I actually fought back tears, and to my even greater surprise, I fought them back the whole rest of the day.

It wasn't until the kids were tucked in bed that I let myself just cry. Everything intellectual in me told me that I had a lot to be thankful for--including plenty of food and children who were healthy if I cooked it correctly--and that my current challenge was nothing that millions in third-world countries wouldn't envy, but weariness just took over my intellect. Matt, having perfected his advice-giving technique over  the 11 years of our marriage, had just the right words for me...a long, silent hug.

And after that most valuable advice, we talked some about how my ability to cook in larger quantities in order to cook less often was hindered by the sizes of my cooking equipment. We bounced ideas around again about bigger equipment we could buy or buying a chest freezer for the basement, and we played a little "What would the Duggars do if their kids had all of our kids' food allergies?" After we agreed that they would all die, I felt much better.

Matt reminded me that in the last few days I had managed to pull off really good barbecue chicken pizza, some yummy sweet potato soup, and a pot of baked beans that everyone liked better than Bush's.  "Kathy," he said, "I feel like in a lot of ways you've been given no straw, and you're making bricks. You are. And it's amazing."

I woke the next morning and cleaned-up my cluttered kitchen once more. I invited Naomi to pick out her favorite treat recipe from our "Cookies for Everyone" allergen-free cookbook, and I taught her how to measure out flours and starches. I let her stir the pot of sugars as they melted and crush the rice chex with a rolling pin, and we actually enjoyed cooking together. For dinner Naomi and Hannah both helped me measure the flours out for pancakes, and cheers rang out when Toby and Emma caught wind that their favorite dinner was sizzling in the pans. We all laughed and shouted together, "It's the pancake alarm, the pancake alarm!" as the overly-sensitive smoke alarm beeped over and over. Elijah didn't know what all the excitement was, he just knew that out of the whole house the kitchen was the most fun room to be in.

That's the way I want it to be. If I'm going to be living in the kitchen for the foreseeable future, by God's grace, I want to make it the most fun room in the house. Not that I won't have my occasional quiet tears of frustration, but that the overriding theme of my life would be, in the words of the apostle Paul, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength," (Phil 4:12-13).

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Coffee and Cords

Elijah has an interesting personality blooming. He is, as all of our children have been, unique. He is bright and loves silliness, but more and more it is becoming evident that he is strong willed to a fault, and he knows how to hold a grudge...and hold it...and hold it still. At least we know he doesn't have a problem with attention span.

Currently he is beyond infatuated with coffee mugs and electrical cords. I have no idea why, please don't ask, but every coffee mug and every electrical cord in his sight belong to him. If he should spy one he will reach for it, he will whine for it, and if it isn't immediately granted, we're in for it. He will furrow his brow, glare, arch his back, and shriek with like a mother eagle who has been denied access to her chick. He will run, shrieking all the way, and slam himself into the nearest piece of furniture, or door, or wall, or just collapse on the ground in a wailing puddle of tears. And he will go on. And on.

Often he is so upset from my ten second delay in action, that even if I consent to letting him hold my plastic coffee mug he will fling it to the ground in anger. After he cracked my second mug I decided it was time to stop trying to appease the child and introduce him to the concept of discipline. That's flying like a lead balloon.

His favorite electrical cords include the spare computer mouse and cord that were stored in my desk drawer and a white extension cord that was stored on a shelf in my office. Because the first few times he picked these up I turned a blind eye in the interest of peace and sanity, these cords now belong to him. He has been upset for three days that I dared to put the white extension cord on a shelf that was out of his reach. He will stand under the shelf and reach as high as he can while grunting, "Uh! Uh! Uh! UHHHH!" First with a hopeful tone, then with a broken-hearted tone, and then with pure outrage.

He is also going through another phase of extreme attachment to his daddy, whom he refers to as "Maa-."

"Matt!" I will call from the other room.

To which Elijah will echo, "Maa-!"

"No, Da-ddy," Matt will correct him.

And Elijah will smile sweetly, knowing full well what his is doing and respond, "Maa-!"

Two nights ago Elijah, who had been sleeping through the night for a few weeks, woke and cried inconsolably in the middle of the night. He whimpered, then wailed. I gave him his water cup and tried to soothe him, but he finally called out, "Maa-!" Matt was up late downstairs so I went down and asked if he would try to come and soothe Elijah. And, indeed, Elijah calmed immediately when Matt picked him up. He even pushed me away when I came near them. Matt ended up laying down on the bed with Elijah on his chest and Elijah went peacefully back to sleep. I got the couch.

Today at lunch someone said something about Daddy, and Elijah's eyes brightened. He looked around the room quickly from his highchair and asked, "Maa-? ...Maa-?" I tried to explain to him that Daddy went bye-bye, that Daddy was at work. I took him to look out the door at Daddy's empty parking space, but it only made Elijah more sad. "Maa-!" he whined, apparently out of thin air at least three more times over the next two hours. When Matt finally came home at dinner time Elijah felt fulfilled at last.

Nothing could make him happier than to finally be in his Daddy's arms...except maybe to be in his Daddy's arms with Mommy's coffee mug and his white extension cord. Now that would be perfection.