Monday, August 29, 2016

Back to School Confidence...

 Dear Brian,

Today you began your second grade year. 

Second Grade!! I can hardly believe it. 

I am so, so proud of you. Not for starting second grade - anyone can start a new grade. I'm proud of you because of how you've grown to get to this day.

I remember this time last year when you were entering first grade. It was not easy. You were so scared that it would be much harder and SO different. You didn't want to leave me and cried every day for a while!! Every time YOU left me in tears - you left ME in tears, too! Things settled down and you ended up having a great year.

We had a fun Summer at "Camp Leong," but in the back of my mind I worried that we would have another rough time with jitters and fears and separation anxiety. Yours, not mine... just to be clear. Ha!

But something happened to you over the Summer. I watched you as your confidence grew right in front of my eyes - and it was magical. There were small things - like taking bigger risks playing outside. Picking up frogs and bugs - climbing higher - riding your bike more. Then there were bigger things. Your confidence in social situations has drastically changed! You made new friends at church and participated in church activities. And one of the highlights of my Summer was when you and I went to the church's Kid's Camp. You made new friends there, too, and got into every aspect of camp over those three days with your whole heart. 

I also watched you with your sister. You can't imagine what it's like for me as a Mother to watch you, this little boy who had his world turned upside down the day his brother died, with this little sister that suddenly appeared. I wasn't sure how it would go - would it be too much to expect of your heart to accept a sibling so soon? Not that we had a choice, but I worried! Boy, did I underestimate you. You have been an exceptional big brother to Hope. She completely idolizes you. This Summer the two of you had so much fun together - playing outside, bouncing in the bounce house in the basement, playing tag, attempting to play hide and seek and laughing every time she gave herself away... you have the biggest heart for Hope. The other day I asked her, "Hope - Brian goes back to school tomorrow. How do you feel about that?" She dramatically sighed, hung her head and said, "I feel sad, Mommy. I need a hug."


I know she'll miss you so much when you're at school. And I will, too!!

Leading up to today, I watched you for any signs of worry or concern. Nothing. Just pure excitement to go back to school. And this morning, when our alarms went off just past six, there wasn't a single grumble or complaint. You couldn't wait to get out the door for the bus!! Daddy took you to the bus stop and was nice to take a picture of you getting on the bus for me. You looked so confident and sure of yourself!!


You only had a half day today so Hope and I kept busy picking up some special treats for your arrival home. We stopped at Target to get you new thermos for your lunch box... and then Wegmans for some celebratory balloons. After church on Sunday when we were in Wegmans, you tried a sample of their Apple Pie and couldn't stop talking about it. So there it was when you arrived home from school just in time for lunch. Which was, of course, Apple Pie. 


Hope was THRILLED to see you and your first priority was to hug and kiss her.

After giving you 24 lectures leading up to today to NOT FORGET DETAILS OF YOUR FIRST DAY... I was pleasantly surprised! I heard all about the bus ride... what the classroom looks like... how nice and happy your teacher, Mrs. Scelzo, is... where you're sitting - and where every other person is sitting - in the classroom AND the lunchroom... how you answered "What did you do this Summer?" with "I went to Ocean City, New Jersey" and so many other little gems. Your enthusiasm was contagious!!

Your first "homework" today was to fill out a sheet telling your teacher all about you. One question was "What is your least favorite subject in school? Why do you not like it as much as other subjects?" Your answer: "I don't like handwriting because it makes my hand tired." This was followed by the question: "What are you most looking forward to learning and doing this school year?" Your answer, ironically, was: "I'm excited to learn cursive writing." 

Another question I loved was "Describe the members of your family." You wrote:  "My Dad is Chinese. My Mom is fun. My sister Hope is sweet and funny." You sat for a moment before looking at me. "I think I'll stop there. Sometimes I don't tell people I have another brother and sister so I don't have to explain it and feel bad," you explained... with confidence... as you should. I told you, "Brian, that is totally okay. You know what? Sometimes I do the same thing."

Tomorrow will be the first full day - AND you have your first soccer practice of the season tomorrow night! It will be a long day. I hope that your level of confidence and enthusiasm stays where it was today throughout the whole year. As your wise Pop always told me growing up, attitude is everything.

I love you, Brian Leong! It is such a privilege to be your Mom. I know you're going to rock second grade!

Love,
Mommy

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Somehow I Was Ready, Too...

"Mommy, Daddy measured me yesterday. Want to see?"

"Sure, Brian," I enthusiastically replied. The last time we measured Brian was at our old house - a whole year ago. 

He was excited to show me how much he had moved up on the measuring stick.

Ed started measuring the boys on the door jamb going down to our basement on January 28, 2013. Gavin was 5 years and 4 months old. Brian was 4 years and 1 month old. That was the first and last time we would mark Gavin's height on that wall. He would be gone just 77 days later. Brian has been measured 13 more times since that day - and Hope once. But Gavin's measurement will always stay the same. He was 3 feet, 4 inches tall.

But, as we know, height most certainly does not measure heart.

Before we moved, Ed wisely and meticulously transferred every height measurement onto a piece of wood to bring to our new home. We plan to transfer them all onto a wall in a closet soon. As Brian and I stood looking at all the measurements and how much he's grown (he's 4 feet on the dot now!), it got him thinking...

"Mommy, it's too bad you didn't measure Darcy on the door before she died," he said.

"I couldn't, buddy. Remember how I told you that Darcy never came home from the hospital? That she died inside of me right before she was born?" I reminded him.

"Oh, right. So, how big was she when she was born?" he asked.

"Not big at all. I could hold her in one hand," I explained. "We had brought a little outfit to the hospital for her and it was way too big!"

"Did you hold her?" he asked.

"I did. I held her all day. I held her for over five hours." I told him.

"And then what happened to her? Where did you take her? Where is she now?" he carefully asked.

I knew where this was headed. It was time.

Since Gavin died, I have made a promise with Brian that I will always be honest with him. If he has a question for me, I will answer it. Always. I also decided to follow his lead as he navigated his own grief journey. I knew he would know what was best for him - and we vowed to support those things. When he made the decision to take over his brother's room and sleep in his bed (which he still does) - we fully supported him. When he decided to continue to be tucked in at night under the very blankets that covered Gavin in his hospital bed - and sleep on the pillow cases that Gavin's head rested on as he was dying - we supported him. 

It was just this past December that he asked me about organ donation. (You can read how I delicately explained that in this post.) I knew when he asked that he was ready to hear the answer. I thought for sure that talking about organ donation would prompt him to ask what happens to our bodies when we die, but he didn't.

Until today.

Today was the day - and I was prepared. At least I hoped.

We sat down on the couch and I started...

"So, remember how we talked about organ donation - and how our bodies are like suitcases? All the important things are packed in our suitcase - but when we get to where we need to go, we unpack that suitcase and we don't need it anymore! Remember that?" I started.

He nodded...

"And remember how I told you that the important things in our body's suitcase are things like our soul and our spirit and all the love we have for everyone. Those things are what meet Jesus in Heaven after we die. Our bodies aren't needed in Heaven!" I explained.

"So, what about our heart? Does that go? Or our brain?" he asked.

"Nope! Our heart and our brain stay here - but the love in our heart and all the memories in our brain will be with us in Heaven. As a matter of fact, once you're in Heaven something magical happens. You can feel even MORE love there - and you can remember your WHOLE life. You might even remember when you were a tiny infant!" I told him.

His eyes widened...

I took a deep breath and continued...

"Are you ready to hear what happens to our bodies?" I asked.

He pulled the comforter up to his face to wipe away some tears, forced himself to laugh and be silly for five seconds and then looked me in the eye and said...

"yes."

"When people die, their loved ones have a choice about what to do with their body. When Pop died, Granny decided to have his body put into a casket. After the funeral is over, the casket gets put into the ground at a cemetery. You know when we go to visit Pop's grave and you see the stone with his name on it? His body is under the ground in the casket right there!" I explained.

"Woah. So Pop is there? We were standing on top of him?" he asked.

"No - not really. Pop's 'suitcase' is there. But Pop's spirit and his soul and all the wonderful things that made him 'Pop' are now everywhere around us! He may be with us at this very moment! Sometimes Hope tells me that she sees him in her room!" I replied.

"That's crazy! Hope didn't even ever meet Pop!" he exclaimed.

"I know, right?!?" I said. "Heaven and being with Jesus is so magical and loving that Pop can be anywhere he wants - and with anyone he wants. He was probably with us when we were at the cemetery. He is definitely with Granny right now... and he may even be right here in the den with us, too! And he doesn't need his body to get from here to there! Heaven is an amazing place to be which is why we should never fear death."

"Are you wondering what happened to Darcy and Gavin's bodies?" I carefully continued.

Again, he pulled the blanket up over his eyes... wiped away tears... told me to wait a second so he could make himself laugh, you know, to balance out the tears... and soon he announced he was ready.

"So, Daddy and I agreed that we couldn't bear to bury Darcy or Gavin in the ground and leave their 'suitcases' - or bodies - somewhere away from us. We wanted their bodies with us all the time! So we chose something called cremation."

I took a deep breath and gave myself an inner pep talk. You can do this, Kate. You prepared for this.

"Once Gavin died and we knew he was with Jesus in Heaven... and the surgeons were done making sure that Gavin's healthy kidneys got to the man who needed them... he was done with his body. That's when the funeral director brought Gavin to where he has this magical kind of box - and this is the part that is so, so special, Brian - they turned his body into SAND!!  We knew how much Gavin loved the beach and how happy he was there, so sand seemed like the perfect choice."

"Wow. That's really cool," he replied. And I breathed. And continued...

"Because his body was sand, we could keep it with us wherever we are! We made the same choice for Darcy, too. So...." and I stood up and motioned towards the shelf to the two urns that have always been displayed right under his nose.
His face lit up, he smiled and asked, "Is that where the sand is? In those things? I thought they were just furniture things! Can I hold them?" he blurted out quickly.

"Sure! Let me get them down. "

I pulled them down and placed them on the coffee table in front of us. He remarked how Darcy's was so tiny and I explained that was because her body was so tiny. 

"I wanted something that was really delicate and pretty for Darcy because I know she would have been just that - as pretty as her sister, Hope," I told him.
He asked what everything meant on Gavin's urn and I explained...


For Gavin, I wanted something really unique because that's exactly what he was! There was no one like Gavin, don't you think?" I asked.

"Yeah..." he sighed.

"I found this wonderfully kind woman who designed this just for us. I told her I wanted it to be a combination of the ocean waves meeting Heaven in a magical explosion of beauty. So the bottom looks like sand... and then ocean waves... and then puffy clouds in the sky... until you see the glittery golden top that symbolizes the paradise of Heaven. You like that?" I asked.
"I do. It's really nice that she did that!" he said.

I read to him what I had printed across the front. A passage from a book I used to read to Gavin at bedtime called, "On the Night You Were Born" that goes...

And the night wind whispered
Life will never be the same
Because there had never been anyone like you 
Ever in the world.

"That's true, don't you think? There has never been anyone like Gavin - ever in the world?" I asked.

"Yeah..." he sighed.

"And what's this?" he asked as he pointed to the dates.

"September 29, 2007 is the day Gavin was born - and April 14, 2013..." he stopped me...

"Your birthday!"

"Yes, my birthday was the day that he died," I reminded him.

He asked a lot of questions about how the sand gets in the urn, what would happen if you opened it and if he could shake it to hear the sand move around... which he did and he could. And with that, he said...

"Thank you for telling me that, Mommy."

Tonight, tucking him in under Gavin's blanket, I asked him what he thought of our talk about cremation. I figured the first thing he blurted out might be the thing he had been thinking about the most all afternoon. His reply surprised me... kind of.

"I was just thinking about the 'sand holder' - what's it called again?" he asked.

"The urn," I answered.

"Right. I really think Gavin would like that you made it beachy and had the ocean and the sky and his name - and the blue. Gavin loved blue," he told me sweetly.

"Thanks, Brian. I think he'd like it, too. You know what I think about when I look at it? That the moment that Gavin met Jesus probably felt like he was surrounded by ocean waves and golden light right when he saw His face - two of his favorite things... water and lights. It was probably such a magical experience. 
I am so happy for him because I know he is happy. Even though I still would rather him be with us - and Darcy, too."

"Me, too," he sighed. 

We sat in the glow of his night lights for what felt like a solid minute before I heard a soft, "Mommy?"

"Yes, buddy?" I replied.

"Sometimes people ask me how many brothers and sisters I have and I just say two," he seemed nervous as he told me.

"Brian. Guess what? Sometimes people ask me how many children I have and I say the same thing. Sometimes it's just easier to say two because you don't want to make the other person feel bad when you explain. And sometimes I say four - and that's okay, too! There's really no wrong answer - I promise. Gavin and Darcy know that they are your brother and sister - and they are always with us, even if others can't see them." 
"Mommy?"

"Yes, Brian?"

"Thank you for telling me."

As I kissed his head one last time and turned to walk out of his room, I thanked Gavin and Darcy for giving me just the right words to get through this day. Brian asked when he was ready - and somehow I was ready, too.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Another Year in the Books...

I can hardly believe that Brian is finished First Grade. Yesterday was his last day, which means he is officially a Second Grader!
This year has been filled with so many great memories and milestones. Brian loved his teacher, Mrs. Korom. By the end of the year, he had so many new vocabulary words in his tool belt - and he became a wonderful speller! He also learned to read - practically overnight - which was a really exciting accomplishment for him. 
He was assessed at the beginning of the year and it showed that he could use some extra assistance with breaking down bigger words and sounding them out. So each week he would meet with Mrs. McGuire for extra help. Well! Mrs. McGuire is my hero! She had Brian believing that he was in a super cool "reading club" and told him that he would probably be the best reader in the class by the end of the year! Each week he got so exciting for "reading club" and all the fun "games" she would play - and, sure enough, he surpassed the goals and "graduated" with flying colors. I think he'll be bummed if he's not in this super secret club next year!! 
Brian had a very nice bus driver this year named Miss Karen. Bus drivers deserve medals for so many different reasons - one of which is having to see Kate Leong in her pajamas and shoes at 7am. Brian wanted to give her a gift at the end of the year so we got her a pretty bracelet with an elephant on it. 
As elephants are known for their great memory - Karen is known for always remembering to keep the kids safe. She won't let Brian move from the bus until the car coming the other way has come to a complete stop, makes eye contact with her, gives her the secret hand signal and flashes their lights twice. I'm kidding about the lights. In all seriousness - I greatly appreciate how she treats all the kids and looks after their safety. 
On the last day, there was a beautiful prayer service before dismissal. At least that's what I heard. After a few minutes inside trying to convince Hope that it wasn't time to call out for Brian or ask me twenty times in a row "Be Quiet?" over and over, I gave up. We decided to hang out on the other side of the church doors and smell the roses. Sometimes it just takes stopping for a second to remember... oh yes, she's just two. You can't expect silence. Ever! 
We have a few traditions when a school year ends that are fun! Brian and I like to meet with his new teacher privately. It's totally for brown nose points. Just kidding - it's for lots of other reasons. It started last year when he was so nervous to leave Kindergarten for First Grade. He had heard there was no toys in the classroom, it was really hard and it's wasn't fun at all. I thought meeting with his teacher would help him dispel those rumors... and it worked! He left feeling confident and excited to start First Grade. So the other day we met with his Second Grade Teacher, Mrs. Scelzo. She told him what to expect in her classroom, showed him all of the games that she had and surprised him by telling him that she sometimes has class outside on a nice day! Brian likes to please, so I feel having this one on one meeting gives him a connection with his new teacher - and he then looks forward to pleasing her with his behavior and school work.
He came prepared (on his own!) to share his "personal goals" for the summer. He wants to read for 20 minutes a day, ride his bike (which he has been nervous to do since falling over a year ago!) and finish three workbooks that we bought (that are basically schoolwork!) by the end of August. On the ride home, I asked him what he thought of Mrs. Scelzo. "She's a really happy person. I could tell. I think happy people make great teachers," he told me.

Our other "last day of school" tradition is getting a gift for a great report card! Brian had his heart set on this weird little stuffed guy - and I have my heart set on Brian - so that was easy! 
And the last thing we do is go to the hair salon for his summer buzz cut! This year it was perfect timing because we left for our Summer vacation in Ocean City, New Jersey this morning! 
It's been so fun to watch Brian grow and change this year. From navigating friendships to dealing with disappointment to trying new things - he's handled everything beautifully. It's hard for me, as his Mom, to watch his baby features go away. This was the photo I took on the first day of First Grade... 
...and this was taken the LAST day of First Grade! That's a big change for a Mom's heart. 
I know he will continue to change before my eyes every day. I just hope that some things never change. I hope he never loses his compassion... his desire for learning... and his sense of humor. If he can do that, he'll be just fine. 
I think we're ready for Second Grade!


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Rise...and Shine...

In a town near and dear to our heart, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, there is a beautiful park. The park is home to a bandshell, a small ball field, a gazebo, historic monuments paying tribute to fallen war heroes... and a playground. Right across the street is the library where we spend a lot of our time. We've never been to the playground. I'm sure it's lovely.
Gavin's school where he made friends, made progress, took chances and finally took steps is in Phoenixville. Do you know that one of the first settlers to this area would sit in his home on a hill and look down on this yet to be named town and fantasize about the old Egyptian legend of the Phoenix bird? You know the story - how the Phoenix dies in a burst of flames only to rise from the ashes in glory? Isn't it ironic that Gavin would make his progress in and leave his mark on this town? Our own "Phoenix" story.

"A mythical bird that never dies, the phoenix flies far ahead to the front, always scanning the landscape and distant space. It represents our capacity for vision, for collecting sensory information about our environment and the events unfolding within it. The phoenix, with its great beauty, creates intense excitement and deathless inspiration." 
- The Feng Shui Handbook, feng shui Master Lam Kam Chuen 

The park in the center of town, Reeves Park, was named after the Reeves family who owned an iron mill named "Phoenix Iron Company." It is no coincidence to me that the Reeves family was known for their inclusive hiring policy. They hired immigrants fleeing from war and strife in Europe... people from all different races and religions... and those who had fled from slavery via the underground railroad. Their family philosophy became their company culture - "At Phoenix - It's The People That Make The Difference." 

That philosophy has trickled down to the town that was aptly named Phoenixville. The people are what makes this town. I have experienced this first hand. This town embraced Gavin and supported our family. Many children that are still in Gavin's old school in town are benefitting from his Trust Project. Some are even making incredible strides using Gavin's walker and stander and more. This is an amazing town.

So, back to that park...

I used to avoid parks that couldn't accommodate Gavin as he got older and more aware. It hurt my heart to think of him feeling left out - and I hated the thought of him watching his brother play from the sidelines. But I also knew that accessible playgrounds were a fortune and didn't expect them everywhere we went. It was what it was. So as we often parked in front of Reeves Park to go into the library, I would sigh as I remembered that this wasn't a park I felt comfortable taking Gavin to. And what a bummer that was - in a town that loved him so much.

Just recently, Brian, Hope and I were headed to the library when we passed the park. Upon seeing the playground, Brian asked, "Mom - that isn't a 'Gavin' kind of playground, is it?" and I sadly answered that it wasn't. 

You know I don't believe in coincidences by now, right? 
(If not - I don't.)

Just a few days after Brian's comment, I saw something on my Facebook newsfeed and just knew I had to get involved. And I knew that you would help.

The local Kiwanis club in Phoenixville has entered a "Legacy of Play" contest. Kiwanis International has partnered with Landscape Structures for this contest and the Phoenixville Kiwanis club has entered. If they win, Landscape Structures will give them $25,000 in playground equipment which will be installed in conjunction with their club's "Kiwanis One Day" event which, no coincidence, is held in April. If the Phoenixville Kiwanis club wins, they will build an all abilities playground right in Reeves Park.

I can tell you right now - having an all abilities park in this town would be a game changer. Children from Gavin's own school would benefit. Local physical and occupational therapists could utilize this playground for fun therapy in the sunshine. My own children could play on this playground and feel comforted that their big brother would be happily playing beside them if he were alive. And my anxiety and heart sick feeling every time I pass this park on my way to the playground... the market... or church will cease. It would be a game changer - for so many. Not to mention, how beautiful would it be to continue the inclusive legacy of the Reeves family who were known for their compassion and respect for the outliers in their town.

Can you see where I'm going with this?

I'm not looking for money. I'm looking for thirty seconds after you finish reading. I know one thing for sure. Between me and all of you, we can all vote once to get Phoenixville in the finals and in front of the judges. The ten submissions with the highest number of votes by noon (EDT) on May 27th (this Friday!) will become finalists. Then it will be up to a panel of judges to select the winning club. Do I hope that the judges see this post and feel the passion I have to make an accessible playground a part of the history of Phoenixville? And in a small way, part of Gavin's story in this town? You bet I do. Do I hope they will feel inspired by one little boy and his giant legacy and choose this town? Wholeheartedly. 

It can't be underestimated how transformative it can be when children have a proper place to play. Please - open your hearts to the children of Phoenixville. Show them that love from strangers can help them rise...and shine...just like the Phoenix itself.

Here is all you need to do:

Click THIS LINK to get to the voting page. When you scroll down it should start with "The Kiwanis Club of Phoenixville...." Scroll down further and click the orange VOTE button! Again, voting closes this Friday, May 27th, at noon and you can vote once a day between now and then. You can watch the page to see the ten finalists and the ultimate winner (Phoenixville, of course) - but rest assured that I will keep you posted!
Thank you, as always, for caring about our little family... and this little town that loved Gavin!!



Wednesday, May 11, 2016

This Is Where My Mom Took Pictures Of Us...

In just a couple days, we will hand over the keys to our old home to a new family who recently purchased it. It's an exciting, bittersweet time. Tonight, we all went back for a "Farewell Pizza Party" to celebrate, reminisce and more.
To say that a lot has happened in that house would be a gigantic understatement. This was our first home together.  I was pregnant many, many times - starting with Gavin!
We were thrilled to welcome him home to this house. 
(Fun fact: that "Welcome Home" sign hung in our garage every day after that. I always wanted to pull in and remember how grateful I was that we welcomed him home. That sign is now at our new house and it makes me feel the same way.)
We brought Brian home fifteen months later and were so excited to announce to our neighbors that he was coming!
I washed hair in the kitchen sink...
Watched the boys relationship develop and deepen...
Made gourmet meals nightly. Wearing my pearls, of course...
We documented all the "firsts" along the way, including first crawls...
First roll overs...
And first steps!
We celebrated holiday traditions and made so many wonderful memories.
We LOVED our neighborhood and neighbors and enjoyed walking and letting Gavin practice in his walkers on the "open road."
When Gavin died, we welcomed hope into that home...
...and Hope into hearts.

Even though we moved out of that house in July and we've been in our new home since then, Brian was suddenly very emotional about the finality of the house being sold. I wanted to come up with something special we could do as a family to make it a little easier for him. So tonight the kids and I headed over with their sidewalk chalk, Hope's stroller and Brian's bike and we had one last hurrah in the driveway. We also threw a frisbee and played tag in the back yard.
Brian also made chalk "signs" for the new family - hoping they would see it on their move-in day.
We moved inside so Brian could write and "hide" special notes for the new family. He started in his old bedroom...
...and left the note in the closet to tell them, "Enjoy the room - and this was my old room!"
Hope took a spin in her old room...
...and took silly selfies in our bathroom mirror one last time.
She helped Brian write some more notes...
...including one for the landing that said "This is where my Mom took pictures of us."
So I did. One last time...
And when Daddy arrived for the "pizza party" after work, we took our very last family shot. 
We look forward to meeting the folks that will be standing in that spot for their family picture. And we hope that their journey in their new home is half as happy and memorable as ours was.


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