I’m not a big fan of what I call “obligation holidays”. I’m talking about days like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and even my birthday. Holidays when you feel like you’re supposed to be doing something. Everyone asks what you’re doing on those days, and there’s the expectation that you need to do something great – a fabulous dinner, flowers, a midnight kiss. When it doesn’t happen, there’s a feeling of total failure. The end-of-the-day giant letdown.

Summer has always felt like one big long obligation holiday.

There’s the anticipation at the beginning of summer. Oh, we’re going to go on a trip, and go to the beach, and have cook-outs and family bike rides. This will be the year we finally take the boat out again, and…

(that last one is a tough one for me…the boat has been sitting in our garage for six years now. Tim and I used to talk about it every spring, thinking that maybe this will be the summer that we’ll rent a place on the lake for a week and spend the whole day out on the water like we used to do before…well, before everything. We don’t even mention it anymore. We both just stare at the boat in silence as we stack strollers and scooters and trash cans up against it.)

This summer I decided to break the cycle. I know our family better now. I know our limitations and have a better understanding of what we can and can’t do. I set zero expectations for this summer. And as I wrote back in June, I dug my heels in and started counting the days until September.

And now, Gerry starts school on Tuesday, and Howie the week after that. Gerry has a memory bag that his new teacher gave him on the last day of school, and he’s supposed to put special things in there from his summer adventures. I remember getting sad looking at it, knowing that I had nothing special planned, and just hoping we could find a thing or two so the bag wouldn’t be empty when he returned to school.

So here I sit now, the last Friday of August. I’m trying to figure out what we could put in that bag.

The truth is, quite a lot. Here’s what we did on our summer vacation:

-attended a wedding (my mom’s)
-went to Storyland
-went blueberry picking*
-went to the library
-played at the park (not once, not twice, but three times)*
-went bowling*
-went to the zoo*
-shopped at the mall
-went to the beach (just me, Gerry and Howie)
-took family walks
-taught Howie how to ride his bike
-played in the backyard
-went to the New England Aquarium
-saw a ballgame at Fenway Park (ok, this was just Tim and Gerry, but still cool)
-went to birthday parties (two of them – both Howie’s friends, first time ever)
-had playdates
-took all three boys swimming in friends’ pools (once even by myself!)
-survived camp/summer school/swim lessons (just barely)
-had a sleepover (Gerry’s first…more on this another time)
-bounced in a bounce house. All five of us together.

note: the (*) next to some of the activities on the list means I did them with the assistance of a mother’s helper. I hired the 15 year old daughter of Howie’s one-on-one aide to help me out two mornings a week on the days when Howie wasn’t at his summer school. The best decision I ever made and worth every penny. I’m pretty sure this summer would have been an even longer one had I not done that. I’m forever grateful for her help.

I’m exhausted just typing that list. Well, I’m exhausted with a smile on my face.

To the average family, that list might not seem so impressive. It’s probably what most families do during those 12 weeks of summer. But for us? Not so average. Getting us out of the house is sometimes accomplishment enough. Getting us anywhere is impressive.

Were there days when the minutes seemed like hours and the hours seemed like days? Absolutely. Were there days when I thought that all the progress we’d made with Howie this past year had disappeared in an instant? Definitely. Were there days when I sat at the computer, trying to hide my tears from the boys? More than I care to count. Were there tantrums, meltdowns, and screaming matches at some of those activities? Oh yes (just ask them at the zoo…)

But there were also mornings that started with laughter, when the coffee pot wasn’t the first thing I reached for. Afternoons filled with baseball, and swings and bike races. Nights when I fell asleep easily, knowing that we had made the most of the day.

That is our new version of summertime. The living isn’t easy, but it’s the best we can do. I know we’re not the rent-a-place-at-the-lake kind of family. At least not now.

Gerry has several things to put in his memory bag now, including one more to be made today with his dad at the water park. They’ve waited all summer for the perfect day to go. Can’t get more perfect than today.

Perfect song on the radio
Sing along ’cause it’s one we know
It’s a smile, it’s a kiss
It’s a sip of wine, it’s summertime
Sweet summertime”
– Summertime by Kenny Chesney

Dear Gerry-

Happy 8th birthday!    Oh, all the things I want to say you on this day! But you’re at Fenway Park with your dad right now for your special birthday game.  I wanted to go with you (you know, because rooting for the Red Sox together is our thing) but logistically it just worked out better for Dad to take you.  Plus, I think he really enjoys taking you to the games (especially because I got really good seats this time) and he knows we’ll spend less if he goes (you know we’d be coming home with more Dustin Pedroia bobbleheads and jerseys if I went!)  I hope he remembers to have you look up at the scoreboard when the Red Sox wish you a happy birthday.  Because not every kid can say they’ve seen their name up there not once, but twice now.

There are so many many things I love about you.  First and foremost of course, is that you made us parents eight years ago.  A life changing event in so many ways, of course, but for me it led me down a path I never thought I’d take.  I was working 12 hour days and teaching when you arrived (in fact, I was writing curriculum when I was in labor with you), and had always assumed I go back to work.  A few weeks home with you and I knew I couldn’t leave you.    With your growth issues, you needed me.  And so home I stayed.  Eight years later, here I still am.  My “job” is to now be home with you and your brothers.  It wasn’t an easy choice, but one I never regret.

I see so much of both me and your dad in your looks and your personality.  Actually, you look a lot like my dad did when he was your age.  You have his athletic ability too, and I love that you enjoy playing baseball as much as he did.  Like him, you’re small but quick with excellent skills.  And you listen.  How great was it that your coach this year said how much he liked having you on the team because you were so “coachable”.  Like my dad, I think you’ve found a sport that you can enjoy for life.  I love how you just want to go out and play ball – even alone – but it’s so much fun to watch you and your dad have a catch in the yard.  I know your dad likes that too.  He’s told me about how far you’ve come with your skills and you’re getting better than him!  You and you dad are so much alike in many ways – you are both incredibly smart, articulate beyond your years, and have a curiosity and lust for learning that many adults don’t possess.  I like listening to the two of you talk about cars, science, and how the world works.  Now if I could only understand half of what you were saying…

I hear time and time again what a “good kid” you are.  Of all of your special qualities, this one is the one that warms my heart.  Your teachers have said it, your friends’ parents have said it – they all enjoy having you around.  You’re polite, fun, engaging and easy going (and you don’t eat a lot!)  Kids want to be your friend and parents want their kids to be friends with you.  That says a whole lot about you as a person.  You can’t teach that.  That’s just you.  And that is truly awesome.

But what makes you the most special is that you have become an amazing big brother.  Howie looks up to you and trusts you and wants to be just like you.  I know in so many ways, it’s quite annoying.  I can see how upset you get when he makes his noises instead of words, or throws a fit when things don’t go just right.  You’re old enough now to understand that he can’t control those noises or outbursts in the same way that you can.  We’ve talked about how his autism affects his daily life, and all of ours.  We’re doing our best to help Howie with his coping strategies, but I know sometimes we don’t do enough to help you with yours.  Know that I am trying – I am trying not to yell, trying not to get frustrated by the day.  I know I need to find activities that we can all do together so that we can better interact as a family, and not ones that pull us apart and do separately.

As Howie gets older, he’s going to look to you for help in his life when he has difficulties or challenges because of his autism.  He will do this because of how awesome you are.  He will do this because he knows you love him and care about him and you will help keep him safe, just as you already do.  That makes you more special than many big brothers, and it’s one of the huge reasons we love you so much.

Happy Birthday sweetie.  And next year that seat at Fenway next to you is all mine.

Love, Mom

“Will you laugh just like your mother
Will you sigh like your old man
Will some things skip a generation
Like I’ve heard they often can
Are you a poet or a dancer
A devil or a clown
Or a strange new combination of
The things we’ve handed down” –
The Things We’ve Handed Down by Marc Cohn