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Thursday, February 26, 2015

You don't talk very much. I like you!

Once upon a time there was a happily married husband and wife who lived in Jacksonville, Florida. They were approaching the age of thirty years old and had a few of life's ever so important questions that needed answering. Before we get into those questions it's only fair that I help you paint a proper mental picture. The once upon a time I am referring to is way back in the year 2010 and the couple I am referring to is Casey and Daphne Grice.


Yes, that is me and my beautiful wife. It was time for us to make some important life changing decisions. You know the kind of questions couples without children begin asking themselves around this time in their life together:

Q: What's next?

A: Uhh...

Q: Do we buy a boat or something?



 A: No. If I don't accidentally sink it, it will inevitably break down and just end up being an eyesore in our yard. I'd rather have a child. As crazy as it sounds, a child just seems like less trouble.


Q: Do we get a dog?

A: Absolutely not. Growing up I was forced to take care of my sister's dogs. She couldn't take care of them so she dumped them off on my parents. My brother and I had to feed them, walk them and scoop up their poop for the better part of a decade. And oh yeah, coincidentally they just happened to be chained to my dad's old broken down boat in the yard for all those years. My prior experiences with boats and dogs have scarred me. If I'm going to be cleaning up poop I want it to be the poop of someone who's not going to end up tied to a boat collecting fleas.

Q: Do we have a child?

A: YES, PLEASE.

So, on April 3, 2011 we had a son. 

We named him Cooper.


The Grice Family in early 2011.


Daphne, Casey and Cooper.

Meanwhile, approximately 10 minutes down the road lived another couple who were going through some of the same life changing decisions. At the time we did not know these people even existed. Two University of Florida graduates who were married in 2007. I introduce to you Adam and Amy Anker:


They already had a boat. They already had a dog. What was next for these two love birds?

Q: Should we have a child?

A: Sure, it seems like the right time.

Q: Do we sell the boat?

A: Yes. We have no family in Jacksonville and few (if any) baby sitting resources. This means the chances of us actually using the boat in the next few years are slim to none. The marina fees are too
 expensive and the last thing we want is for that beautiful 17 foot Chaparral to become an eyesore in our yard.

Q: Do we get rid of the dog?

A: Yes. We chain her to the boat and make it a package deal. Just kidding. Just kidding. What kind of person would chain a dog to a boat?!? We keep the dog. Non-negotiable. We sell the boat, keep the dog and have a child. 
Deal? 
Deal!

So, they begrudgingly sold the boat.
They kept the dog. It was never truly a question. The plan was made.

On April 22, 2011 they had a beautiful baby boy.


They named him Grayson.



The Anker Family in early 2011.


Adam, Amy, Grayson, and Layla
Beauties, all of them.

Two baby boys born with only 18 days between them. The decision to bring a child into this world is what brought us into each other's lives. How we met is a story in itself. I had never met anyone in this fashion before this day and I seriously doubt I'll ever meet anyone in this fashion again.

It was a typical hot summer Saturday. Daphne, Cooper and I headed to the beach to one of our favorite old spots for lunch. Cooper was only 6 or 8 weeks old at the time so we were still able to leave him in his seat asleep (No, not in the car) and only worry about feeding ourselves. We could actually still use both hands and eat our food while it was still hot.  We had no clue how meal time was about to change. 

Anyway, I'm sure we just talked about Cooper for the entire meal like first time parents tend to do, then we headed to the parking lot to get in the car. About half way between the restaurant and the car we passed a couple on the sidewalk carrying an accessory similar to the one we were carrying: a tiny brand new bouncing baby boy. 

We all four smiled as if to acknowledge that we all recently joined the same new and exclusive club of sleep depravity. There may have been some of your typical first time parent pleasantries exchanged:

"Awe, he's so cute!"

"How old is he?"

"Congrats and have a nice day."

Or maybe not. I don't particularly remember. We continued on our separate ways.

What I do remember was about 30 seconds later when I was putting Cooper in the car and a homeless person approached my wife begging for change. I thought it was a homeless person begging for change anyway. Turns out it was Amy...begging for friendship maybe? She must have prepared for this moment. She started with a pretty smooth pick-up line. 

"Hey, do you know of any Mommy & Me classes around here or anything?"

I don't remember Daphne's reply. All I know is that a few smooth lines later and this strange gal had coerced my ladies phone number from her lips. Literally, like 3 lines from this silver tongued she devil and she scored my wife's digits. Impressive.

Now that I think back to our dating days, I scored the digits pretty easily too, so maybe I'm giving Amy a little too much credit. 
I digress.

They chatted for a few seconds, exchanged numbers and then Daphne sat down and closed the car door. We looked at each other with a look of bewilderment and I asked, "What was that all about?" Daphne replied something along the lines of, "I don't know. She seemed normal enough so I gave her my number. We might get together with the boys." I couldn't believe it. Now, I could see me doing the same thing if some lonely new dad came up to me in a parking lot asking my son and I on a play date because I always feel compassion for people but Daphne is not the most compassionate broad in the world and she is very on guard about stranger's intentions so this seemed out of character for her.

Turns out, Daphne made a great decision that day. Actually, Amy is the one who made the great decision. Amy wasn't some lonely new mom who didn't have any friends because she had some freaky deaky skeletons in her closet. (Although I haven't personally checked the closet.) She just didn't have any friends with kids the same age and thought it would be a great idea to try to find a playmate for little G. Pretty great intentions if you ask me.

It worked out.



Years down the road we've talked about our atypical meeting multiple times. Amy's version of the story goes something like this: "When we passed you guys on the sidewalk I thought you looked normal. I wasn't going to let you get away!! Plus, Cooper had on those cute Gator shoes. Grayson had them too. It was a sign."

Here we are almost 4 years down the road and the Anker family are some of our best friends in the world. I even happen to like Adam just as much as Daphne likes Amy. It's hard to find friends who are married that you and your wife get along with equally. I would suggest that the chances of this mutual admiration plummet significantly with two strangers who harass you and your new baby in a parking lot. But for whatever reason it worked out.

We have so many memories of the boys growing up together. Most of them are fantastic.
Some were a little tougher to deal with. Regardless, these boys are each other's first friend and you can never change that no matter what happens.

Daphne and Amy started taking the boys to a place called My Gym. Grayson and Cooper learned to play, climb, roll, grab, clap, slap bang and hang together. They have learned to do almost everything together. Here they are literally learning to hang together at My Gym.



They learned to swing together. Even tandem swing sometimes when they were small enough to fit in the same swing.




We even tried cookin' 'em up for Thanksgiving dinner that first year. They weren't having it.


 So we dressed them up as Pilgrims and Indians and forced them to play nice!


Even though they are Jewish and we are Christian they still came over for the ugly sweater Christmas party to celebrate friendship. Cooper and Grayson had matching sweater vests.




Tell me these little cupids couldn't turn that spark into a flame!


We take them to the pumpkin patch every year. It's tradition.

2011


2012


2013




2014
 Grayson, Fletcher (our second son) and Cooper

As you can see, we have had some great times. Too many to count, actually. But it hasn't all been as smooth as we would have liked. Far from it actually. Throughout all these amazing memories something just wasn't "right." There were multiple signs along the way. 

If you noticed earlier on I talked about all the things Cooper and Grayson learned to do together. I wanted so bad to type the words, "They learned to do EVERYTHING together." But I just couldn't. There were a few things I had to omit. You see, Grayson never rolled over and he wasnt much for crawling. He took his time getting around to those first steps. One might say he was a little behind schedule, but for Grayson, he was right on time. When Cooper was learning to communicate and talk to mom, dad and his friends, Grayson was not. Grayson was diagnosed with Autism a few months after his second birthday but Adam and Amy say they knew since he was 6 months old. 

When Grayson was in social settings that he wasn't comfortable with he would have some major melt downs. They would tell us about other situations that would set him off and none of us could understand why. I remember trying to give them parenting advice on things to try; Things that worked for us, but it never worked. They had already tried it all. 

I was just trying to be a good friend, but as it turns out, I had no idea what I was talking about. At that point I guess none of us did. It was frustrating for me. I just wanted to help them figure it out. I can't imagine what it was like for Adam and Amy. I would guess that parenting an autistic child who you do not know is autistic might be one of the most difficult things to do on this earth. I'm sure at some times they felt like incompetent parents. I can assure you that they are anything but. Adam and Amy have no idea how much they have taught me about parenting, dedication, love and resolve in the 4 years that I've known them. 

Once  Grayson was diagnosed with autism (non verbal; he still does not talk) Adam and Amy took the bull by the horns. I'm sure it's been much more difficult than they let on but they've learned how to communicate with him in his "language." They are potty training him with flash cards and he's starting to make progress. Are you kidding me? Potty training Cooper with words was the hardest thing I've ever done as a parent and I whined about it all the time. Adam and Amy have stepped up to a much tougher challenge and I know they will succeed. I didn't know anything about autism before Grayson's diagnosis but I've learned my fair share since. Not only about autism in general but how to be a better friend and how to be a better parent.





Here we are in downtown Jacksonville at the Annual Autism Speaks walk.

 I've learned that parents of children with autism don't need you to feel sorry for them. They don't need anything special from you. They just need support. I've learned that children with autism are different. They are unique and special. I would hope that no one would take offense to that statement. True, I don't know first hand what it is like to have a child with autism but I do know what it is like to love a child with autism. 

Adam and I recently had a moment with the boys that taught us a great lesson. A few months back when the they were  3 1/2 Cooper must have all of a sudden realized that Grayson has never talked. We were at Zaxby's after dinner and as we were headed to the car Cooper made a point to make eye contact with Grayson and he asked, 

"Grayson, do you talk?" 

Grayson doesn't talk yet so he did not answer Cooper. This left the explaining up to me. I dropped the ball and said something along the lines of, "No buddy, he doesn't" and I apologized to Adam. I clearly wasn't prepared for this. I thought for sure we had at least another year until we needed to explain this to Cooper. I had no need to apologize to Adam. Adam wasn't offended. He made that very clear but I guess I was just put in a situation I didn't know how to handle so my human nature took over and I apologized while completely dropping the ball on an explanation as to why Grayson doesn't talk. Cooper deserves to know why his very first friend hasn't spoken a word to him since they met so long ago and Grayson deserves to have someone speak up for him and explain to his buddy why he doesn't talk to him.

It all hit me on the way out to the car and I explained it to Cooper the best way I knew how. I told him that Grayson is our quiet friend. I told him that he doesn't talk right now but we hope that one day he will. I told him that he is special to us and that we love him no matter what and then I used one of his favorite movies to help him understand.

UP




"You don't talk very much. I like you."

For some reason he has always loved this part of the movie when Ellie tells Mr. Fredrickson (when they are kids) that she likes him because he doesn't talk very much. We would say it and he would laugh or he would randomly say it during the day. It just struck a chord with him.

He smiled really big and said "Okay Daddy."

I think I got the point across.

A few weeks later Adam and Grayson came over for a guys play date. We were playing with the boys in the playroom. Cooper brought it up again. He said something along the lines of  "Grayson doesn't talk." I reminded him that Grayson is our quiet friend and that he is very special to us. When Adam told this story, he said that Cooper's response was innocent, positive and matter of fact:

"He'll talk one day."

Adam also said that it's not the easiest thing in the world to stay positive about Grayson one day being verbal but if he ever needs a glass half full kinda guy he's going to head to the playroom to find Cooper.

There are no words to describe how proud it made me feel to read those words when Adam typed them. I guess that is fitting.

Since the day that Cooper was able to communicate with us it became obvious that he has a very tender heart. When his little brother Fletcher would cry as a baby, Cooper would cry too. He would get sad because Fletcher was sad. There is one instance that stands out in my mind when Cooper accidentally ran into a little girl at the zoo and knocked her down. He stood up and he was fine. He noticed she was hurt and crying. He helped her up, gave her a hug and a kiss and then cried right along with her until her mommy came and got her. He's tender, caring, supportive and understanding. When he learns how to harness those emotions as he gets a little older he'll be the perfect teammate to be in Grayson's corner. Grayson might need a friend to understand him and speak up for him but maybe, just maybe Grayson will just need a friend to encourage him to speak up for himself. It is my responsibility and my challenge to continue to teach Cooper how to be that friend.

The further we get away from that day in the parking lot at the beach when something told Amy not to let us get away, the more I'm convinced that we didn't meet by chance. There is a reason why we've been put in each other's lives and it might just be this special little friendship or it might be something more. I heard a rumor that God works in mysterious ways.



We're only 4 years into this story.
To be continued.











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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

There's a WHAT inside my wife?!?!


Do you remember those super cool pictures with the hidden 3D images that became really popular back in the nineties? They just looked like some type of pointless radical design at first glance but then your buddy who already had it figured out taught you how to look deeper into the picture. Maybe he showed you how to put your nose against it, slightly cross your eyes and slowly move your head away from the picture while gradually uncrossing your eyes until you finally saw it. 

What took you so long?

 For crying out loud, there's an angry three dimensional shark with two rows of flesh hungry teeth exploding out of the murky water (that you thought you actually felt splash your face) seconds away from chomping down on a tasty unfortunate surfer that the shark had mistaken for a manatee!!! ...and this is all happening mere inches from your face! You were practically giving him a cross eyed kiss only seconds ago!!! 

BOOM!!!

 Your mind was officially blown.
 How in the world did they do that? 


Well, the answer is: I don't know.

 I read some stuff on Google but I don't really remember... or maybe I'm just too elementary minded to comprehend what I read. Maybe that's why I have such an appreciation for these pictures in the first place.

What I do know (thanks to Google) is that the super cool picture with a hidden 3D image actually has a name. It's called:

THE STEREOGRAM:

Blast from the past, right? When was the last time you saw one of these bad boys? Did you know it's called a Stereogram? I'm impressed if you did. To be honest with you I had completely forgotten about these things until about two years ago. I remember exactly where I was when the memory of the stereogram re-entered my mind. I was sitting in a chair at the hospital while my stunningly beautiful pregnant wife was paying the receptionist for our 19 week doctor visit. We were anticipating the birth of our second child. We were approximately half way through the pregnancy. I was pouring over 8 or 9 pictures that were somehow even more mind blowing than the stereogram... 
and that's before I saw it.

What is "it" you ask? I'll get to "it" momentarily. For now, let's talk about those pictures.



THE SONOGRAM:
( Our second son, Fletcher, in the womb @ 10 weeks all by himself)

 I'd venture to say that pretty much everyone knows what a sonogram is. Those of us who are parents could never forget. I'm sure you remember that feeling you had the first time you saw a sonogram of your child/children; the first time you heard the heart beat. It's really the first chance to bond with your child. Even though your wife may have taken a pregnancy test or had her pregnancy confirmed by a doctor it just doesn't hit you until you see that tiny little guy and hear that beautiful breath taking heart beat. I will never forget that feeling... instant chills and an instant rush of the happiest tears to my eyes... true love.

 Okay... I'll stop.

 I can feel you tearing up on me.
(or maybe it's just me.)

What I'm trying to say is that it's one of life's mind blowing moments. I'd be lying if I said it was the same feeling I felt when I saw my first stereogram. That would be silly. It's similar but it's different. I already told you that I have an elementary mind. Don't get me wrong, I'm a smart enough guy but I guess I just really appreciate things that are "super cool" to me. A stereogram and a sonogram are both "super cool" in their own special way. Even though you have to look "deeper" into a stereogram to see what it has to offer, the super cool pay off moment is much deeper with the sonogram. When comparing the two, it's kind of funny when you think about it that way. But why would anyone bother to think about it that way? What would possess anyone to even bother comparing the two?

(Fletcher @ 19 weeks presumably still all by himself in the womb
don't worry, he doesn't have a twin.)


Am I right? Are you asking yourself  why I even bothered to make this comparison?

Well, the answer is: I don't know.

Just kidding. I actually have an answer this time but before I tell you, let me ask you a few questions that may seem like they are coming out of left field.

You've seen Toy Story right?

If you have kids they probably love the movies. You may even love them yourself.



Are you familiar with Woody, Buzz and the gang?

My oldest son, Cooper, LOVES Toy Story. At the time of our 19 week appointment with Fletcher it is safe to say that we were watching parts of Toy Story on an every day basis. It is also safe to say that my wife and I were seeing the Toy Story characters in our sleep. They had basically become part of the family.


This was the scene at our house on Christmas morning that year.

Back to the question at hand.

Why would I bother to compare a stereogram and a sonogram?

This is why:




When I first saw him while sitting in that chair at the doctor's office I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. I thought I had watched so much Toy Story that I was just seeing things. When i mentioned it to my wife she rolled her eyes. When she saw him for herself she couldn't believe her eyes. In case you haven't seen him yet, I will help you out.


WOODY!!!

Cowboy hat, vest and all.

Inside my wife.

Propped up against my unborn son's face.

"There's a snake in my boot!"

Once you see him you can't unsee him. We showed the receptionist. She cracked up laughing. She started showing Woody to everyone in the doctor's office. We were all laughing. The doctor even heard the laughter and came around the corner to see what was causing such a commotion. When he saw Woody he laughed heartily and explained to me how the babies right hand, jaw and nasal cavity lined up perfectly to make it look like Woody was hanging out in there. He even made a joke about there being "a Woody" inside my wife.

Gee. Thanks Doc.

As if Woody and the gang weren't already a big enough part of our family, now we're bonded forever and I'll never believe that those toys don't really come to life when no one is watching.

It was a fun moment. One I'll never forget. Right there in that chair in the doctor's office I actually had a stereogram moment for the first time since the nineties.

BOOM!!!

My mind was officially blown.
How in the world did they do that?

(Fletcher and Woody today. Two years later.)








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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

OUT OF CONTROL: Playground Bullies


Allow me, if you will, to tell you a short story of a poor boy who became a victim of a ruthless bully on the Chick-fil-a playground.

The following events took place in late January of the year 2014. 
This is an unbiased witness account.

I preface this story by telling you that the capacity for empathy forms at age 3, meaning preschoolers are capable of caring for others as well as intentionally hurting others. In my opinion, this means that parents need to be alert and aware of the potential for bullying from the time our children start communicating with one another. Although I never had any significant first hand experience with bullying as a child, I've seen enough second hand bullying to understand the severity of the issue. I never want my child to become the victim of a bully and even more so, I never want my child to become a bully.

My focus needs to be on constant communication with my boys about their behavior and the behavior of their peers as they grow. Prevention and protection are key. I just need to focus on THEM. I'm safe. I made it through my adolescence without any major issues. High five! At 33 years old I NEVER have to worry about being bullied again in my entire lifetime...

 It was a typical Saturday lunch with friends. We filled our tummies on greasy fried nuggets, waffle fries and a fruit bowl. Yes, a fruit bowl... because a well rounded meal is very important to us.

Fried chicken... Waffle fries... Fruit bowl... Three course meal.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it.


So, we shared a few stories and laughs with our friends and then I took the boys into the play area to let them burn off some post meal energy. Cooper (3 months shy of 3 years old at the time) immediately took off up the stairs to the slide while I stayed below with Fletcher (9 months old) to let him explore.



I observed two boys (approximately 5 and 6 years old) rough housing nearby with no parental supervision. For a second I thought they might be conjoined twins. They kind of reminded me of two squirrels mating. You know what I mean? They chase each other up and down a tree (a playground in this case) at break neck speeds no further than one inch apart at all times squeaking and squawking all the while. They were all over each other and really going at it. They played like brothers who either hated each other or really loved each other and had a funny way of showing it. They kept to themselves though and didn't seem to bother anyone else. I figured I'd let them work through their brotherly aggression on their own terms as long as they didn't try to get my boys involved in their mating ritual. After all, I wasn't the one who was going to be paying for the doctor's bill if someone broke an arm.

We did our best to ignore them while we played for about 10 minutes. The two boys calmed down significantly and just before we called it a day I overheard one of the boys begin to talk in that "school kid bully tone." You know the one. We've all heard it before. He started to draw out his words and accompany them with some "Oooh's" and bratty laughter. I decided it was my duty as a responsible parent to eavesdrop on the boy. What if I needed to protect my cubs? We were the only other people on the playground. Who else could he possibly be picking on besides my innocent little boys? I'll admit it, Papa Bear's ears perked up and he got on his hind legs. If you are a parent, I'm sure you can relate to this feeling.

Here's what the boy had to say:

 "Oooh, he goes for the Gators...haha. Oooh, and he has a yellow beard...Oooh, AND HE'S BALD HAHA!!!"

It didn't take long for me to realize that this bully wasn't picking on my boys. To my knowledge, there was only one bald guy with a beard wearing a Florida Gators shirt on the playground. He was making fun of ME!!

Are you kidding me? Such blatant disrespect! What's wrong with kids these days? I couldn't believe my ears.

Fortunately for me, his little buddy didn't appreciate his mean spirited comments as much as he did. When their dad came to get them off the playground he told on him. I really appreciated that even though it didn't really help with the self esteem issues I've been having as a result of this incident. As if it wasn't hard enough to deal with going bald in my mid to late twenties, now I've got this miniature Biff Tannen busting my chops on the playground while I'm trying to spend some quality time with my little McFly's. Thanks a lot Biff. As a result of this incident I've really been doing some soul searching in an attempt to find out who I really am as a man deep down:

I tried the 1920's train conductor look. My kids love trains. I figured they would love this look. I was wrong.


I tried the daredevil autopilot by day/ 1950's bare knuckle boxer by night look.
It just led to more confusion.


I even went through a Walter White look a like phase. When I walked into CVS to buy cough medicine they refused my sale. Also, my wife threatened to change the locks on the house.

You know what Biff? I'm glad your little buddy tattled on you. Serves you right you little punk. By the way, my beard isn't yellow. It's RED. I would have let you slide if you went with dark orange, but YELLOW?!?! Come on! My two year old knows better. Novel idea: Why don't you go home and practice learning your colors instead of picking on adults at Chick-fil-a there smart guy?!?! 

The unmitigated gall!!!

 I eventually regained my composure and confidence. I did it for the kids. I couldn't set that kind of example for them. I can't believe my wife and I have brought two children into this cruel bully riddled world. I'm also somewhat shocked and in a state of disbelief that my bald head with a bushy RED beard look doesn't seem to be working for me, even with the younger demographic. I actually thought it made me look tough. Wrong again.

Like I said before, prevention and protection are key. I just need to focus on ME. The boys are safe. They're young and resilient. I'm old and fragile. Now I'm 34 years old and I'm just glad papa bear has these two cubs to protect him when the going gets tough... and yes, I shaved the beard. My wife is probably grateful for little Biff. Now that I think about it, she may have actually hired him.




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