Guest post: Today’s fight for democracy

This Memorial Day, I bring you a guest post from an author very dear to my heart: my dad, Michael Harrell. He had some thoughts weighing heavy on his mind today, and when he sent them to me, I felt they were worth sharing. He agreed to having them posted here. Whether you fully agree or not, I hope you appreciate the perspective of someone who has spent a few more years than I observing this great American experiment.

It has been a very long time since World War II. That is the last war that clearly saved the world from despotism and hatred. In that war there was a clear “right” and a clear “wrong.” The individuals who served in that war are now few, and aging. It is far too easy to forget that very many men and women sacrificed lives, health, finances and comfort to defeat a very evil enemy, and maintain the freedom and democracy we now enjoy.

We are now used to wars of questionable purpose and value. Wars fought with increasing technology that removes death and suffering ever further from our own homes; wars that seem too significantly motivated by financial gain or political advantage.

It is, I believe, important to remember that many gave up much that we can live as we live. I fear we have grown fat and lazy, and are unappreciative of the blessings we have and live with from moment to moment. Memorial Day is a time set aside that can serve to help us remember and appreciate what others have sacrificed.

We are now in serious danger of losing much of what those men and women gave to save. What a powerful enemy could not take away by violence, we are day by day giving up voluntarily. The man, elected by citizens of this free nation, who places the wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier today, is bit by bit eroding the foundations of our democracy. Nor does he bear this responsibility alone; he is the leader with many who follow for their own purposes.

Truth may be the most significant and lamentable casualty. Reshaping facts and misleading statements have always been a part of our democratic process. Our current leadership, however, now seems to have no attachment to honesty and factual evidence, with resources for verifying truth being assiduously undermined.

A free and unbiased source of information, on which we can make evidence based judgments, is another fallen trooper. Mistrust and scorn for any evidence that disagrees with a strongly held construct seems determined to put to death all but collaborative “evidence.”

Respect for one another, regardless of ethnicity, country of origin, age, sex or any other imagined difference is perhaps an equally remorseful loss. The seeds of hatred, division and disrespect are being sewn widely and deeply.

Certainly we have never been a perfect society, honest, faithful and respectful in all situations and at all times. We have had tremendous failings. But until truth can be resurrected, evidence restored and respect regained, can we expect to continue in the freedom and democracy we so underappreciate?

God’s Kingdom is our true country, and citizenship in that country is the only true security. I pray that God will soon put all concerns to rest, and establish His forever true, faithful and respectful government on this earth, as it is throughout the rest of Creation.

Michael Harrell is a respiratory therapist, an exceptional husband, father of two and grandfather of four, a deeply devoted Christian, an avid reader, a talented vocalist, excellent chef and baker, and disability advocate. He lives in Ooltewah, Tenn. with his wife of more than 40 years and his faithful guide dog, Honor. 

Best laid plans, or, Lina’s last day of EC

 

Today did not go as planned.

It was Lina’s last day of early childhood preschool. She has spent three years at Pearre Creek Elementary, where the teachers, therapists and staff have loved her and she has loved them. She has thrived. She has asked for school on weekends and holidays. This place has been good to her. It has been good for her.

I was emotional before the day even began. (You’re shocked, I know.) I cried as I thanked the amazing bus driver and aide and watched that preschool bus pull away for the last time.

I got my post-gym shower and headed to Target to pick up a few things. (How many disasters have begun that way?) It wasn’t until I looked down at my phone, well into my meandering, and saw the calendar reminder for Lina’s end-of-year school party, that I remembered I was supposed to be at her school an hour early. I was supposed to bring baby carrots. I was supposed to hear the kids perform the songs they’ve been practicing for weeks, the ones Lina has requested we sing along with on YouTube every day this week. It was five minutes until the 30-minute party started. I was 25 minutes away.

I cried all the way there. The landscaping truck in front of me belched black fumes as we lurched through the worst 3 p.m. traffic I’ve ever seen between Target and Pearre CreekIMG_2262. I’d like to tell you I got it together before walking into the classroom, but nope. I cried again once I got there, as kids were already heading out the door with their parents.

But Lina – that girl, that light of my life – was overjoyed to see me. She was relishing her party snacks like they were the only food she’d have that day. I worked valiantly – really, it was downright heroic – to regain control of myself, and I just managed to avoid ugly crying again as we said our many good-byes.

As I look back tonight at the photos, I can (mostly) let go of my frustration and disappointment. Because, y’all, look at these faces. The pictures are grainy and blurry as I scrambled to catch the moments, but look at the way these women, these super heroes of Pearre Creek EC, have loved our girl.

What more can I add to that? Thank you, Pearre Creek. We will not forget all you have done for Lina.

Lina goes to Kindergarten: Sneak-a-Peek

You know what made today’s kindergarten sneak-a-peek event especially jarring? Remembering going with Corin yesterday. Seriously. I cannot account for the time.

Lina was by turns overwhelmed and excited as she got her first real tour of her new school. Her favorite parts were the bus ride, trying out the play kitchens in the classrooms, discovering the stage in the cafeteria and the Scales Mustang cookie (because that girl never met a dessert she didn’t like). She didn’t much want to talk to anyone, though she did engage in a giggly round of under-the-table peek-a-boo with the little girl across from her. She didn’t much want me to take pictures. There was some finger sucking and a meltdown or two when she didn’t want to stick with the tour program, but overall, she did pretty well.

I’m not sure how I’d rank my own performance. Events like this can be tough, mostly because they throw into sharper relief the differences between Lina and her typically developing peers. There are things she can’t or won’t tell me, and I am left to guess. Does she really understand that she is going to this school next year? What does that mean to her? How does she feel about it? Old worries resurface. How will the other kids respond to her when she doesn’t behave quite like they expect? Will they be patient with her less-clear speech? Will they make the effort to include her in their play? Will she be left behind as they race along at their carefree pace? How will she respond to the greater academic challenges?

I don’t like admitting those fears. I want you to believe that I always see Lina’s strengths and never waiver in my faith that she will conquer every obstacle and prove wrong every doubt. But that’s not real life. I have my struggles with worry and fear. These changes will never not be scary. I will never not feel the ache of the extra challenges my youngest child faces.

But deep down, in the place where it matters, I remain confident in Lina’s ability to navigate this transition. I believe that God has walked with us every step of our path so far, and that He will go beside my girl as I send her into her elementary school experience. I have a tendency – passed down like a treasured heirloom through long generations of worriers – to get ahead of myself. I want to solve problems ten years out. But that’s not how God works, and it’s not a very effective way to live. Instead, our family is learning to take our path one step at a time. God has never failed to provide just what we need for today.

So today, our girl walked through the halls of a fantastic school, where she will have access to excellent teachers, therapists and resources. She connected with a little girl across the table. She discovered favorite books and toys. She found the stage. She ate every morsel of her cookie. It was a good day.

Easter and Luke turns 5

This past weekend was beautifully rich and packed with family celebration. It began on Saturday morning with the remarkable SonRise pageant held every year on the campus of Southern Adventist University.

The weekend of celebration continued in the afternoon with a birthday bash for our very own Easter baby, my youngest nephew, Luke. The family gathered at the clubhouse in my parents’ neighborhood for Luke’s requested spaghetti dinner and Easter egg hunt.

Then came opening of the birthday gifts at Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

And then came Easter Sunday, spent coloring and hunting eggs and eating pizza at my brother and SIL’s home.

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(Yes, that would be my son hunting eggs in a Rocket costume.)

The message of Easter is one of infinite hope, joy, renewal and life. As we spent the holiday weekend celebrating together, I was struck by how all of it – life and love, family and laughter and childhood joy — points us back to the God who gave everything for us and who continues to pour His gifts into our lives.

Welcome to the jungle: Corin turns 8

Corin loves monkeys and requested a jungle party this year. My brother’s family came for the weekend, which meant lots of great cousin time for the kiddos. March 18 fell on a Sunday, so we got to celebrate on his actual birthday with the family and a few friends from school. We had a great time, and I enjoyed getting to know his friends a little better. They are sweet kids, and I loved seeing how much fun Corin had with them. The day started cloudy and cold, but the sun came out just long enough for the party. It was a great start to a new year of life for the boy who made me a mama.

Also: A huge thank you to all the family who pitched in and helped me pull everything together. I could NOT have gotten it done alone.

 

 

 

 

 

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Farewell, Tennyson

We said good-bye to a member of our family yesterday. Tennyson came into our lives 14 1/2 years ago, wobbly, fuzzy, with a head as big as his body. Yesterday, he left our lives as Tennyson and hippoJon and I held him and murmured our good-byes, freeing him from the cancer eating at his body.

He was never the world’s best dog. In fact, he could have given Marley of Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog a run for his money. He ate entire socks, underwear, and the center stone to my engagement ring (yes, really). He peed on every bed we ever bought him. He destroyed every toy, including the ones billed for “tough chewers.” Early on, he developed an eye condition that required surgery at a veterinary ophthalmologist (price tag: cha-ching). He dug through visitors’ purses and luggage for Backpacking Tennysonanything in the neighborhood of edible. He shed twice a year like it was his job. He dug through the bathroom trash. He never did learn to heel or fetch. He was a born explorer, compelled to sniff every nook and cranny, and thus an incorrigible wanderer. He demonstrated a go-go-gadget ability to reach items on kitchen counters that seemed well beyond his reach, inhaling his reward packaging and all.

In fact, he was such a pain that I’ve been caught off guard by how brutal this is. The reel of memories has been playing hard these last hours: the backpacking trips where he cheerfully carried his own gear and, against all odds, proved to be a great trail dog; the pressure of his weight as he leaned against me; the years he provided comfort as our Tennyson and Samibaby when we were struggling to have one of our own; the few years he shared with our second beagle, Sami, before she left us too soon; his head buried inside a doggie stocking on Christmas mornings; tripping over him every evening as I cooked dinner; the jangle of his tags as he followed me from room to room, never wanting to be far from his humans; his presence in a thousand unremarkable moments, part of the fabric of our lives for nearly all of our adulthood, woven into the fabric of our family from its start.

So, now we learn how to be a family without him. Lina looked out the glass door at the rain this morning and told Jon we needed to let Tennyson in. When Jon reminded her that Tennyson is gone, she said “Tennyson is dead,” and her lip trembled. Corin has internalized a

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Photo: Katie Schoepflin Photography

lot, as he tends to do, but choked up last night at bedtime as we talked about what he would miss most.

At these times, I always wonder why we do this to ourselves. Why do we sign up for the inevitable heartbreak of losing a pet that becomes a member of the family? I suppose the answer is contained in the grief. We have 14 years of memories that remain.

Rest well, Tennyson. You weren’t a good dog, but you loved and were loved well.

3.21

Today – 3.21 for three copies of the 21st chromosome – is World Down Syndrome Awareness Day. I love this day. Our family likes to wear mismatched socks to celebrate the differences that color our world. Friends and family send pictures of their crazy socks. My Facebook feed fills with celebrations and photos of kids and adults with that something extra. It is beautiful.

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Thanks to a packed schedule, only Lina and I got our sock photo.

Jon and I kicked off the day by attending Lina’s kindergarten transition meeting at the school she’ll be attending in August. This was the first time we met the new team that will be taking over her therapies and support services as she leaves early childhood preschool and begins her elementary experience at our school of zone. It felt like a pretty big deal, which is why you could have found me at our local FedEx at 9:30 last night, having a one-page flyer printed.

If you’ve followed along these past three years, you know that Lina’s preschool experience has been phenomenal. She has attended four half-days a week in an early childhood blended classroom of peer models and students with special education needs. There are four adults in the room of about 12 students: either the occupational or speech therapist (each two days a week), a special education teacher and two aides. The kids receive a tremendous amount of individualized attention and support.

We are very lucky to live in a district that believes in inclusive education for students Version 3with disabilities. In fact, the elementary schools in our county don’t have self-contained special education classrooms. Lina will be pulled out for brief periods for special ed instruction in reading and math and small group speech therapy but will do the vast majority of her learning in a general education classroom. She will receive support from a paraprofessional who stays with the class full-time.

All of this is awesome. It’s why we moved to this district. It’s also overwhelming. This is a whole new world for our girl. The change from four half-days to five full days is big enough. But now, Lina will also be one kid in a class of at least 20, needing to keep up with generalized instruction, transitions to other parts of the school for specials (like art, music and P.E.), navigating the lunch room, the bigger playground… It’s a lot, and this mama’s heart contracts every time I think about it.

But, this is what we’ve been working towards for the past three years. This is the process of parenting, that gradual letting go, of sending our kids out into an ever broadening world. Lina’s current preschool educational team has spent long hours updating her evaluations, preparing her IEP (which prescribes her special ed goals and supports), communicating with the new team and ensuring the right supports will be in place. Jon and I have spent three different meetings over the past two weeks going over those goals, providing feedback, suggesting changes, developing a behavioral plan, helping the new team get to know our girl and her strengths and challenges. Months before she begins kindergarten, an entire village is pouring effort into providing everything Lina needs to learn. I get weepy when I think about the dedication of these teachers and staff, who are paid a fraction of what they deserve. Together, we and these remarkable teams are laying the foundation for Lina’s future. The dreams we have for her of college, meaningful employment, independent living: they start here. IMG_3659

So, on this 3.21, I am grateful, and yes, a little heartsore. My baby is growing up, but I know that’s the job. Sending her into the world is never going to not be scary, but I am moved yet again by the size and heart of our village. From friends and family who put on their crazy socks (literally and metaphorically) to the teachers and therapists who work day after day to equip her for success, Lina has an army at her back. That may be the greatest gift of all in this journey.

Here comes the Spiderman

This is an embarrassingly overdue post, but I finally got photos edited from my oldest nephew’s birthday on September 3. Ben turned seven, and we had a Spiderman-themed family celebration. The kids always have a blast together. I grew up living a long distance from my cousins, so I am grateful that my brothers’ kids and mine are close in age and have the opportunity to spend so much time together. This is the stuff of great childhood memories.

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I love what an expressive gift opener Ben is:

You say lollipop, she says microphone…

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We may have worn these guys out…

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Silly string!

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Ben mastered his two-wheel bike on his birthday!

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We spent some time in downtown Chattanooga before heading home.

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Buddy Walk 2017

We couldn’t have asked for a nicer day for this year’s Buddy Walk. The morning fog cleared mid-day, the sun came out, and temperatures reached the unseasonably warm upper-70s. The event was held this year at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage home just east of Nashville, and the setting was gorgeous as the fall leaves in Tennessee reach peak colors.

But the truth is that whatever the weather, the Buddy Walk is one of my favorite days of the year. I have written before about how much this day means to us and why. There is just no way to fully explain the experience of walking through a crowd of thousands of people who all share the joy of loving someone with Down syndrome and knowing that we are in this together. This is a group that can move mountains – and will.

Lina was thrilled this year to have a couple sweet classmates from school attend with their families. We are so grateful to all the friends and family who came out to be a part of the walk with us, and to every person who donated. The money raised through this event funds an entire year’s worth of programs for the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee, including critical education and advocacy work. Every donation, every person who comes out to walk is a part of making this community a better place for people with Down syndrome, and ultimately, for all of us. So thank you, thank you, Team Lina. You showed up, and it means the world.

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The whole crew – Thank you, Team Lina!