40 is When I Grew Up

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Despite how hard the last year has been, I can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else.

As a child I often heard my mother say, “I stopped aging at 28 because that’s when my mother died.”

We lived with my grandmother in a two-family house in Sunset Park. She had lung cancer and only lived for a few months after the diagnosis. At the time, my mother had me, age 9, and my sister, 5, to care for along with her mother. One night when my mother was nursing her mother through the last weeks of her life, I ventured downstairs to my grandmother’s apartment to find her. I stopped at the doorway to my grandmother’s room. My mother was changing her mother’s diaper.  My grandmother’s stared at the wall as if she was trying to remove herself from experiencing this most unkind role reversal.  My sense that I’d interrupted something very intimate had me fly back upstairs to my room.

My mother didn’t stop aging at 28. She grew up at 28. That’s when she went from being untested to challenged. That’s when she had to find every ounce of energy and courage and strength to figure out how to get through the next day.

It took me a bit longer. I grew up at 40.

Everyone’s life is tested. Be it death or illness or loss of any kind, we all reach these moments where we have to make a decision: Am I going to dissolve into a puddle of my own helplessness or am I going to muster every ounce of energy I have, put on my blinders and figure out a way out of this mess? The lucky ones choose the latter. I like to think I am lucky.

The last year has tested and challenged me in ways big and small. It put me face-to-face with my own shallowness and materialism and helped me to shun both. Who needs stuff? I’m now hoarding experiences. I want to be in the moment with my children, experience their laughter and see the wonder on their faces as I take them places and show them things I’ve never seen before. I want to turn off the TV that we relied on to zone out during our refugee days and instead have long talks with my husband about our lives, our dreams, our frustrations. I now can stop worrying about the inconsequential and relax a bit more about the big stuff. I have seen that no matter what the challenge, with enough faith and hard work and optimism life actually bends towards beauty and grace.

I’ve learned that life can be frustratingly hard and fear a demon that taunts you in the dark of the night. But I’ve also learned that both can be overcome not because it’s easy but because what choice do you have? Should I overdose on self-pity or should I keep serving microwaved hot dogs for dinner and cold cereal for breakfast all the while remaining focused on the promise that a better future was coming? I kept nuking franks and somewhere stopped caring about the milk spilled on the carpet or the crumbs in the bed. And isn’t that a blessing?

My kids, who managed this catastrophe with more strength than I could have ever predicted, taught me that as long as you have your family you truly do not need anything else. They never cried over lost stuff and were just happy to have all four of us together under our roof. They got frustrated by our tight quarters and lack of privacy, just like I did, which made me realize that a need for space — both physical and personal — is a natural human craving. Now when my daughter wants to be alone in her closed room, I smile grateful that I have that bit of peace to offer her.

Last night as we were getting ready for bed my husband said to me, “We survived the last year and did it without killing each other.” This is no small thing. Our marriage was tested again and again but I realized that for both of us, being patient and calm in temperament and having the internal strength to wait when we wanted to scream “I want it now!” was what saved our own minds and likely our marriage. Sometimes, no matter how much you want to fight and kick and scream to get what you want and get it quickly, you realize that all the energy in the world isn’t going to make it happen. And so you move to acceptance and realize that the peace that accompanies it is better than the satisfaction of winning a hard-fought war.

We have lived in a Sandy year and it has changed me, changed my community, changed how I look at everything in my life. I am older now in mind and spirit. I am tested and I was victorious. I faced the shock; I wrestled with the anger. And as I feel, and as I see reflected in the faces and lives and stories of those around me, I am one of many who fought the fight and won.

Right after the storm I truly felt like a victim. Today, a year later, I am a survivor. I am smarter and tougher and better prepared for the next thing life throws at me. But I won’t think about that because I’ve also learned this — enjoy the now. Be thankful for this moment. Because it only happens once, and you might want to remember it.

 

Where We Were, Where We Are

Exhausted

This ground meat wasn't just what was for dinner: It was exactly what I was feeling like.

This ground meat wasn’t just what was for dinner: It was exactly what I was feeling like.

On Monday night, after racing through my workday, taking Mira to piano and enduring a tornado warning, I arrived back home at 5:30 with no idea what I was going to cook for dinner. Neither child had done his or her homework. I still had two assignments for work that needed to be filed that night. The kitchen was a disaster. And in my perfect world I would have dinner on the table in 30 minutes.

My mind raced. I had a pound of frozen chop meat. What could I do with it? Ah– Tacos! But no, I had no taco seasoning packets and lacked the time or patience to look up a recipe and make my own. Think, think, think… Bolognese! Spaghetti with meat sauce — except no, Sid is trying to cut carbs. I threw the frozen block of meat in a pan and let it start to brown. As it sizzled, I fielded random spelling homework questions from my first-grader: What’s a word that rhymes with mine? Out of ideas, pasta it would have to be. I felt pretty bad about this because I felt like I wasn’t supporting his efforts to eat healthier, but that was another task I just could not fulfill at the moment.

I could have, probably should have, just ordered a pizza and threw my hands up in defeat (carbs be damned, again). But we still have a final payment to make to our contractor and so I’ve been hellbent on not spending any unnecessary money. Twenty bucks on a pizza seemed, at the time, unnecessary but I realize in hindsight it might have saved us all.

When Sid walked in the door I asked him to supervise the boiling pasta (with apologies for the pasta). I raced upstairs to do a last read-through on the article I had to file. It was after 6 p.m. and my heart pounded. Finally finished, I walked downstairs in time for everyone to sit down to eat.

“Who wants sauce on their pasta?” Sid asked. My brain flipped: Doesn’t he know to NEVER ask that question?

“Not me!” the two said in unison.

I had nothing else: no bread, no salad, and there was no way I was going to let them eat just a bowl of buttered pasta. (In hindsight, I realize letting them do just that would have saved us from my meltdown.)

“Don’t ask them,” I snapped at Sid. “Just give it to them.”

“Noooooo!!!! I don’t want it!!!!” my son whined. At which point I glared at all three of them, turned on my heel and said, “You all eat. I’m going upstairs.”

I didn’t yell but my intent was clear. Mommy was pissed. I did what I had been dying to do all day: crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head. I listened as my breath slowed down, I felt my muscles start to relax. Then I heard it: the thump-thump-thump of tiny footsteps. Ahhh!! No!!!!

Two small people were suddenly in bed with me, one, my daughter, crying. “I’m so sorry Mommy. I’ll eat what you made. I’m sorry.” Ah, the words that proved the depth of my failings: Not only was I upset myself, I dragged my daughter down into my depression. All kids want is not for us to work less, but for us to not be so stressed — research shows this. But here I was stressed and unable to stop it from spilling over, again.

My son gave a terse “sorry” and hugged me tightly. I hugged them both close, their love calming me down even further. I explained that I just wasn’t feeling well, was very tired and had just had a long day.

“Come eat with us,” Mira said.

I sighed on the inside. I just wanted to be alone! But I couldn’t say no to their big, forgiveness-seeking eyes, and so I went down and ate cold pasta while listening to the kids tell their dad the stories of their day. When done, I left Sid to clean up and helped the kids with their baths. I read my son stories and tucked my daughter in. And then, at 8:30, I crawled into bed myself.

For nearly 10 hours I slept, the coma-like sleep that has been so elusive. I didn’t wake up in the dead of night worrying about how we’ll pay for this or that, or angry with myself for not having done things differently along my Sandy journey. I just slept. At 6 a.m. I woke to kids in my bed and a dog that needed to be walked and a husband still baffled as to why I was so upset.

While the kids dressed, the truth poured out of me: “I feel like the person I was before the storm, and who I am now, are two different people. And I miss the person I was. I used to have my shit together. And now I don’t, I still don’t, and I just want to feel happy again.”

It was an avalanche of truth that at once crippled and strengthened me. My problem is weakness, pure and simple, but completely justifiable weakness. The person I once was has to be rebuilt one brick at a time. Problem is, I’ve never been good at waiting for anything.

But maybe the key to building myself back up is being kinder to myself, to not pushing myself so hard. Maybe the key is rest. I’m exhausted; we’re all exhausted. Maybe if I do less, I’ll actually wind up accomplishing more. Nothing tangible, mind you: My house will still be a mess and I’ll likely still scramble to figure out dinner. But maybe if I add more pizza to our future, more sleep, more stepping back instead of trying to force myself to do things I lack the energy for, I will actually find something that feels like the person I once was.

 

 

Damn You, Tornado Warning!

A tornado warning was issued for New York City yesterday. It unnerved me.

A tornado warning was issued for New York City yesterday. It unnerved me.

I’ve been barraged with emotions lately, some I can’t completely process or control, and so I’ve decided to return to a place that, during my darkest moments, gave me some relief. My intent is to blog regularly until the one-year anniversary of Sandy. I believe there’s still much to be said. Sadly, Sandy is still with me every day.

I didn’t expect that to be the case. I had assumed that once my house was liveable again, once our daily conversations no longer focused on picking out fixtures, battling insurance companies and wondering if our contractor would show up, that I would be able to close this chapter on my life. Sandy would be over because Sandy was no longer making my life unlivable. But somehow, for some reason, that has not happened.

Yesterday the winds whipped through Rockaway, eerily warm gusts that were reminiscent of summer yet a reminder of the great strength nature has to overpower us. There was a tornado warning, and you might think, “Tornadoes in New York City? No, don’t even worry about that.” But you’d be wrong, because in the last few years we’ve had at least two that I can recall. In my mind’s eye I saw trees falling. I saw Moore, Okla., and houses reduced to rubble. I saw all my belongings destroyed, again. I shook off the thoughts but their images drifted into the back of my memory, ready to be reconjured with the first howl of wind.

The sky turned dark. The winds whipped, the rain came down. I had made the mistake of telling my kids about the tornado warning. As we drove in the car questions from little minds that now know too well what questions to ask were lobbed at me: If a tornado comes, how will we get away? How fast is the wind blowing now? I reassured them that the sky looked perfectly normal, which meant no tornadoes were coming. To which my 9-year-old recited her memorized understanding of tornadoes: First the sky turns green and then you hear what sounds like a train coming toward you. Yes, that’s what I’d read too. And suddenly I’m racing to get us home as quickly as possible, and wondering, since we don’t have a basement, what room we should barricade ourselves in. The rational part of my brain doesn’t actually believe we’ll need to do this yet I have an urgent desire to be prepared in case we do.

This is my mind post-Sandy. A storm is never just a storm. There was a time when I believed wholeheartedly, “that won’t happen to us.” But then it did, and now I know — it can happen and it is devastating once it does.

Outside of Sandyland, there is no understanding of this anxiety. There is no understanding of anything. People walk into my home and see my admittedly beautiful kitchen and think somehow I was blessed after all that chaos. Shiny appliances cannot substitute for a loss of innocence. I would give anything to go back to those times when I could believe that the worst was not possible, when naivete was my blinders and the life seemed much more technicolor than it does now.

Several days a week I drive past empty lots where the fires once burned. I see houses going up in some places, which makes me smile, but the barren spots are a punch to the gut, a regular reminder of all that was lost. I see people walking across sand hills adjacent to where the boardwalk once stood. I see contractors everywhere still, breaking down and pulling apart before they can build back up.

Last week I met a dog who was blinded by the stress of living through that terrible night. Is there a part of me that is equally disabled? I feel sometimes that the answer is yes. In the struggle to make it through each day of the past year I have had to toughen up and shoulder against fear, doubt and dread. As I built up that resolve I wonder if I didn’t lose something in the process, something that sounds like joy and feels like peace.

As you can likely tell, I’m working through some issues. I’m not even sure if I’ll post this out for the world to read but if I do, it’s only in hopes that someone else, who is feeling the same way, knows he or she is not the only one. If you’re reading this and now are worried about me, don’t be. The one thing I am sure of is that I will get through this stronger and more grounded than I ever was before.

We have been through a major trauma, and I’ve been told that often it’s at this very moment, when life goes from a challenge of day-to-day survival to being able to look at the long-term, when the full brunt of all we’ve experienced comes bearing down on us. I’m trying to process it, to stop blaming myself for mistakes made along the way and instead, embrace where I am and move forward.

And that’s why I write. So I can take small bits of this disaster, wrestle with them and then, hopefully, put them to rest.

From Now On, I’m Hoarding Experiences

Off on another adventure. He has no idea how much the world has to offer, but I hope to show him as much as I can.

Off on another adventure. He has no idea how much the world has to offer, but I hope to show him as much as I can.

I spent last weekend dismantling our post-Sandy hellscape, i.e. the bedroom where we lived most of our lives for those grueling six months.

Everything from downstairs that had survived the storm had been hauled upstairs and stacked on shelves, piled against walls and shoved under beds. Some of it, like Mira’s kindergarten scrapbook, should not have been saved. A well-meaning person who helped us during the clean-up must have lacked the heart to throw it out, but seeing it again, the pages all stuck together, the mold smell pungent, brought back all the hard emotions of those first few days. Other things that were in fine condition left me feeling claustrophobic — the over 100 books in my office, several hundred CDs that all have been saved digitally, toys that had sentimental value but had outgrown their usefulness.

I grabbed black trash bags and empty cardboard boxes and set to work. If pregnant women nest, post-hurricane women de-nest. I wanted to purge, give away, throw out. I wanted less stuff to keep track of, fewer things that I had to find a place for, less mementos to be sentimental about. Stuff is a burden. It takes care and maintenance and there’s no guarantee it won’t be taken away from you.

But there’s something no storm, no disaster, can ever take away — your memories and the emotions they conjure. When I think of my husband whispering “You look dynamite!” when I joined him at the wedding altar, that moment is ours alone. Or that sense of joy, love and accomplishment that filled my heart when that baby I just couldn’t get to settle down finally rested her head against my shoulder, her body feels and breath warm and rhythmic against my neck.

I want to collect experiences, which is why Sid and I have decided to say yes to things we usually would say no to. When my brother-in-law introduced the idea of the entire family heading to Durango, Colorado, logically and financially we should have said no. We already had one vacation planned for this summer. Could I really take that much time off of work? And what about the cost?

At first we said no, we can’t do it. But then we realized this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My mother- and father-in-law, my husband’s brother and sister and their families, all of us on a 9-day tour of a place I’d never heard of in a part of the country we’d never been to.

And so we shrugged our shoulders and in a big “What the hell? Why not?” sigh, we bought the plane tickets and found a house to rent. The kids will get valuable time with their grandparents and will strengthen the bond with their cousins. We’ll visit the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde and a host of other sites and experiences. The memories we make will be worth the expense, a lifelong gift that can never be taken away.

Last night my son and nephew and I held our breaths as we watched a deer nearly walk up to our front doorstep. A mountain range rings around the house, a reminder of the earth’s marvels. I ran down hills and struggled up them, proud I was able to make it as far as I did. I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before, experiencing things I’ve never done before. These moments are mine. I’ll keep them forever.

Nine Months Later

Nine months later, the water line is etched on more than just a wall. It's a scar on our souls.

Nine months later, the water line is history. But the journey was life-changing.

Nine months ago today, my life changed forever.

The poignancy of that time frame takes me back to the two other times in my life my spirit has been rocked by that same thought.

With Mira, my oldest, I had spent over a year charting my temperature, relegating sex to a to-do list item and then, after all that, staring in sadness at a single line on a pregnancy test. So when I did finally get pregnant, I felt as if I’d been transported to an opposite universe. After all, this had been the month I was warned by my new fertility specialist NOT to get pregnant. I needed a rubella booster shot and the vaccine could affect a fetus. I remember the nurse giving me a tutorial on birth control, as if I needed a refresher course. (I guess I should have paid more attention, but all told it’s better that my mind wandered.)

For most of the month, there was a DMZ in the middle of my husband and my bed. That is, until one night… I had told my friend Tracy, who was single at the time, of my new fear of getting pregnant. Her response was, as always, incredibly rational. Birth control had never failed me before. What did I have to worry about now? And, my favorite part: “For the sake of all of us who wish we could have sex and can’t, please go have sex with your husband.” For this reason I joke that in Mira’s case, it took three people to make a baby. I have no doubt Mira would not be here were it not for her godmother.

A few weeks later, when I saw two lines on the pregnancy test instead of the usual one, and when four different brands of tests yielded the same results, my mind was flooded with dizzying shock and euphoria. I was about to become a mother. The next nine months would be a journey into unexplored territory. It was exciting and petrifying.

With my son, no sooner had we pulled the goalie than I noticed my early pregnancy signs – instantly gaining 10 pounds and being annoyed by everything. I remember my 2-year-old bouncing around on the bed, despite my pleas for her to stop so she didn’t bust her head open, and wondering how on earth I could handle two children when one often seemed more than I could handle. But this was happening – in nine months, my life would change forever.

Fast-forward to now. Nine months ago, my transformation lacked the exhilaration and nervous joy of my other nine-month epochs. But it has changed me just as fundamentally.

Motherhood led me to discover depths of patience and understanding I had no idea I was capable of. Sandy tested those limits and deepened them.

Motherhood taught me that I am not the center of the universe and what I want and need are not the most important factors in life. Sandy taught me that as long as the people in my life are safe and cared for, very little else matters.

Motherhood taught me that having people to love, and love you back, is a gift. Sandy taught me that possessions can be destroyed but no one can ever take away your memories, which is why I’m now focused on accumulating experiences rather than things.

Motherhood forced me to reinvent my career and suffer through some financial highs and lows. Sandy too. Before Sandy, with my son finally in kindergarten, I was on the verge of expanding my business. Sandy forced me to work harder than I’d ever worked, juggling the mental challenge of focusing on work while figuring out how to feed my family from the microwave and not be consumed by anger at insurance companies, contractors and adjusters.

Nine months later, I am transformed and I can’t say it’s for the worse. I definitely have more anxiety in some areas and less in others. This hurricane season is going to rile me, and I know I won’t be alone in that. But I realize I’m stronger than I previously knew, which leads me to believe that the only limit to our inner strength is the depth of current circumstance.

This is 40

Here I am, ready for this next awesome decade.

Here I am, ready for this next awesome decade.

One year ago today, I woke up feeling forlorn. My 30s were nearly done and I thought I had failed myself by not already achieving all the plans I had made while in my 20s. I had lost myself in motherhood and the daily struggle to merely keep up with all I had to do to run a house and keep a business afloat. What happened to ME? I felt like the eye of a tornado, spinning helplessly and sucking up more problems, responsibilities and messes that would have to be cleaned up by “someone” aka me.

This morning I feel more in control not because I somehow commandeered all of these obstacles and problems in my life. I feel more in control because I let them all go.

Thirty-something Cynthia put too much energy into trying to control everything around me. I strove for perfection. I beat myself up if I fell short of it. Any failure was mine alone. And then came Sandy.

For the first time in my life I faced an opponent I had no possibility of defeating. The enormity of the upheaval pushed me, the control freak, to the opposite end of the spectrum. If I couldn’t completely control it the only other option for me was to let it all go.

An amazing thing then happened: Despite my putting significantly less effort in than usual, everything somehow fell into place. I realized that life is not rowboat that I have to exhaustingly propel to the next accomplishment. It’s more like a comet and the choices I make are what will steer it where I need to go.

On my 39th birthday I felt like a rowboat. Today I feel like a comet. Today is better.

My other huge lesson of the last year is that I am not as alone as I thought I was. I never felt lonely per se, but I used to think I was the only one who had my crazy thoughts, insecurities and frustrations. Having the courage to start this blog had an impact I never expected. The chorus of “I get it,” “you understand me” and “thank you for writing that” moved me and gave me courage to keep writing.

Courage is no small thing. I really put myself out there in ways I never had before. Many days I hit “publish” and thought, “I can’t believe I just put that out there.” Invariably, those were the days when I received the most support. Without that feedback, I don’t know that this blog would have had the positive effect it did on me.

DId I achieve all the goals I set out for myself. Ha! Not even close. But did I become a stronger person, did I learn more about myself and find peace with the current pace of my life? Yes. And honestly that is better than a number on a scale or crossing line items off a bucket list.

This morning, I’m happier than I was at 39. And so I believe the hype: 40 will be fabulous.

1: So Long, 30s

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So here I am: My last day as a 30-anything.

A year ago, that thought jolted me into starting this blog. Back then, I was focused on endings. Now I’m focused on beginnings. That is a much happier place to be. But my 30s deserve to be memorialized and so, here’s a brief summary that omits much but highlights the life-changers.

It was the decade I decided to become a mother, and then did: twice. That in itself makes it the defining decade of my life. I can’t imagine I’ll ever make a more life-changing decision than that one. Becoming a mother gave me a great gift. Seeing myself in my children allowed me to accept myself in ways I never had been able to before. If my kids are like me, and I love them so much, that made me too worthy of love. That might sound absurd to someone for whom confidence came with their first breath, but for me it was huge. From my kids, I also experienced a kind of love I’d never felt before. It’s wide and vast and for now, unconditional. Becoming a mother helped me discover myself in ways I never would have otherwise.

It was the decade when I learned that when you take a leap of faith — i.e. push through the fear and the what-ifs — you will be rewarded. We left our lives in Michigan, Sid abandoning a dream job as a car designer, and instead followed our hearts home to New York. I opted to start my own business instead of going the more secure route of working for someone else. We bought a new house in a sketchy neighborhood but found great schools for our kids anyway and a community that fits our lives and personalities. We decided to pull the goalie and have baby number two even though the timing was far from perfect. Today my son is proof that moving forward in life results in a much richer experience than sitting and waiting ever can. We did crazy things that taught us that when you lead with your heart everything else falls into place.

It was a decade when I learned the limits of my own strength and thankfully, they are much deeper than I had ever known. My house was destroyed but my life, my marriage, even my sanity remained strong.

It was a decade of loss. My grandfather passed away, which was a very hard experience for me but taught me lessons I hope I never forget. One of them is simple but crucial: Once a person has put in nearly eight decades on this planet you should let him eat Mallomars, even if the doctors say he has to watch his sugar. Life is to be lived, not just endured. To this day I regret giving him the things I was sure he needed instead of those that I knew he wanted.

If a whole is a sum of its parts, then a life is a condensation of its experiences. As a thirty-something I experienced and endured a lot, not all of it good, but each experience is a hammer on my metal, something that shaped me and redefined me. I wouldn’t change any of it because today, I’m happy with whom I’ve become.

I go into 40 surer of who I am than I did at 30. I also have an idea of where I want to go, one that isn’t focused on motherhood and I find that exciting. While my kids and husband will always come first, what comes second matters too. I matter. My hopes and dreams still have some steam. And they make me excited for what will come next.

7: School’s Out for Summer!

Mira's third grade classroom.

Mira’s third grade classroom, a refuge from the storm.

We did it. We survived this school year.

When Mira, my now almost-9-year-old, started kindergarten, I thought that was the hardest year of my life. How I helped her do her homework while having a 2-year-old simultaneously demanding (a.k.a. crying fits and full-body tantrums) my attention is beyond my recollection. Selective memory is an amazing phenomenon. I often told people that “kindergarten really kicked my ass.” And it did. But that school year had nothing on this one.

Here’s the annoying thing about living through a natural disaster — for the rest of the world, life still goes on. For us here in Sandyland, crossing the Belt Parkway or the Marine Parkway Bridge was like Dorothy landing in Oz. Everything went from trash heaps and tear-stained faces to fully stocked grocery stores and people lounging in restaurants. My kids go to a school outside of the Sandy zone, which was a blessing and, sometimes, an annoyance. It was a blessing because unlike so many Rockaway kids, they did not have to change schools or be bussed to a different, far away location. But it was frustrating because at school, most people didn’t get it.

You still don’t have power?! I was asked a month after the storm. No, no one in Rockaway does.

So is everything back to normal now? That was after Christmas. It would be months before I got even a whiff of normal and to be honest, I can’t even say we’re fully there yet.

Miles and his beloved kindergarten teacher.

Miles and his beloved kindergarten teacher.

Our life was in ruins and yet the school year had the nerve to keep marching on. After Christmas, Miles’ kindergarten teacher pulled me aside and said, “Now that things have calmed down for you, we need to talk about Miles’ handwriting.” Calmed down? Handwriting? In the moment I was ticked. But she was partially right. Things hadn’t calmed down but that didn’t mean I could ignore my kids’ academic needs.

Mira, in third grade, had to write two research reports. The first assignment was given in December, when we were still living with family, and I remember it just pissing me off. Why was she (I) being asked to do something so demanding? Didn’t her teacher understand that I had to fill out insurance forms and open a much-needed bottle of wine once the clock struck 5? I didn’t have time to help an 8-year-old do research.

Mira chose to write about Olympian Kerri Walsh-Jennings. Research is my thing and I almost wanted to snatch my laptop from her and just do it all myself. Instead, I directed her to a few websites and basically patted her on the back and said “good luck.” A few days later Mira, who had been wearing the same five pairs of clothes for a month, who had been sharing a bed with her brother for the same amount of time and had been robbed of the recently discovered joy of having a room with a door that can close out the world, handed me an eight-page report on the beach volleyball star. It had a table of contents and photographs, an index and a glossary. And most important of all, it basically had zero input from me. Here we were in this tornado of confusion, and my daughter figured out how to focus and perform. I wept and, as has happened so often over the last few months, was strengthened by my children’s resolve.

For her second research project, Mira chose to write about the history of Rockaway and Sandy’s impact. It would have been easy except for the fact that all the Rockaway libraries, which had the books on the area’s history, had been flooded out. So instead we turned to online resources. I encouraged her to do interviews with friends who had lived in Rockaway their whole lives. We included our own photographs. It was MacGyver research, third-grade version, and she learned a lot about making due with what you’ve got.

There were other annoyances, mostly self-induced: The kitchen wall calendar I relied on was gone so I was constantly forgetting deadlines for school trip money and having to ask teachers again, and again, “when is that event and what time does it start?” They were exceedingly patient with me. And then there was the third-grade “TV-Free Week,” Seriously? Didn’t Mira’s teacher realize that all that saved me from losing my mind by dinnertime was the guilt-filled prospect of letting the kids zone out in front of the tube? But Mira was determined and so we did finished the week with minimal cheating.

This was the year when I thanked God for the school breakfast and lunch program. The mini-fridge and the microwave made for a pathetic eating experience. Knowing that even if they refused to eat yet another bowl of cereal they could grab something at school or that I could cross “pack lunches” off my jammed to-do list was a blessing.

I am also incredibly grateful for the generosity poured upon us by classmates and teachers. When Mira’s teacher heard that Mira had lost many of her books to the storm, she collected two boxes filled with new ones to replace them. She and Mira’s second-grade teacher then organized a book drive to help other kids in Rockaway get back the books they had lost. Fellow parents called to ask how we were and what they could do and that validation meant so much. One quietly shoved a card in my hand with $100 in it. I didn’t know what to say other than thank you.

Schoolwork was demanding but school itself was a blessing. Getting the kids back in their routine was crucial to my, and I know their, sanity. And now I realize that their teachers were doing what they knew needed to be done — continuing to push them even though times were tough. Left to do this myself, it wouldn’t have happened. For me, “we’ll do that later” became a mantra. For the teachers, learning to read and acing the state exams had to be done now and I thank them for being focused on that when I absolutely wasn’t.

Today kindergarten and third grade end for the year. For two months there’s no homework, no tests, no research reports. I’m so grateful to the kids’ school for their amazing support through this year, their doing what I could not and most of all, their compassion through it all.