Plans Were Meant to Be Broken

Aug 18, 2019

"How is Aaron doing?"

That is a question I'm asked frequently these days, so I'll attempt to answer it here, although I'm finding it can change drastically minute to minute. 

Three cases in point:

1. Aaron had a routine blood draw scheduled for this past Tuesday (funny what has become "routine" in just two weeks' time). But on Sunday night, he was exhibiting symptoms that were making me nervous: bruises and petechiae were appearing out of nowhere again, sores were sprouting in his mouth, and his gums were bleeding. I didn't feel like he could wait until Tuesday. So Mike took him in on Monday instead. Sure enough, his platelets had dropped back down into the single digits, requiring another platelet transfusion. Looking back, I'm guessing he could have held out until Tuesday, but I've become a bit jumpy lately.

2. On Wednesday through Saturday of this past week, we had a reunion with my family. We all stayed in a big house not far from our home (and the hospital, which turned out to be a good thing). Wednesday and Thursday were great. Being around grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins perked Aaron right up. He was the happiest I had seen him in several days. Then on Friday morning, we went on a short hike. It was not treacherous or strenuous, but Aaron began to fade, and quickly too. He was at the back of the pack, and after less than half a mile, he said to me, "Can we go home soon?" (I thought he was having a bad attitude.) Then he said, "I am so cold." (Note: it was not cold.) And finally, "My head is hurting." We decided to turn around. By the time we got back to the parking lot, he was drooping against my side and breathing heavily (and I was beginning to panic). We rushed him back to the house, took his temperature (it was 101.5) and called the hospital. Within minutes, all of our afternoon plans were cast aside and we were on our way to the clinic. (Thankfully, after a round of fluids and some rest, his fever disappeared, and we were allowed to go back to the reunion.)

3. Last night as Aaron was going to bed, he said, "My throat is hurting." I got a feeling of foreboding in my chest, which was confirmed this morning when he didn't have the energy to get off the couch. His fever was back, which meant another trip to the hospital, and this time he was admitted. It looks like it's something viral, not bacterial. But it doesn't really matter because either way, I'm guessing the first day of school is out for tomorrow. And we were so close to making it!

You would think that I would have already figured out that absolutely nothing is set in stone, and I must stay flexible. But I just can't seem to help but get attached to my plans. It's in my nature. And every time something unexpected happens, it's like I have to recalibrate. This is not an easy process for me. And sometimes, like today, it involves a lot of tears. (I was holding out on the hope that he would be able to start school, and I was so devastated to give up on that.)

You might expect that these unexpected changes would only affect me if they were negative in nature. But I'm finding that it's the change itself that impacts me, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. For example, if I spend a lot of mental energy working through and accepting some bad news and I come up with a plan for how to deal with it, and then I find out it wasn't so difficult after all, well, that's hard for me. Some of you probably think this sounds crazy. Probably because I am crazy. But basically I feel like I can never win because whether I plan for the best or the worst, it's almost always different than what I'm expecting. 

This is all to say that the last couple of weeks have been rough. Not in a brutal, heart wrenching way. But more in an up-and-down, never-know-what-to-expect way. 

But that's maybe more about how I'm dealing with all of this rather than Aaron. Back to him:

For sure, the worst thing he has been dealing with over the last two weeks is an abundance of sores in his mouth. When he was discharged from the hospital, he had one on his tongue. They tested it for the herpes virus, but it came back negative. They decided to treat it anyway. But instead of helping, it seemed to breed more sores, and a new one appeared almost every day. His lower lip is especially plagued by them, and sometimes he is in so much pain, he can't even think. We are treating them with a variety of things (magic mouth wash for pain, biotene for swollen gums, anti-fungal in case that's what's causing it), but so far nothing is helping. The most likely explanation is just that he doesn't have much of an immune system (his ANC (absolute neutrophil count) is currently sitting right around 100 or 0.1, which I've learned is very bad), and so his body just can't fight these invaders the way it normally would. But he sure would be a lot happier if they would just go away.

He is going in for weekly blood draws (in between other unexpected, unplanned visits), and his cell counts continue to interest us. (Mike, being the nerd that he is, has started plotting them on a graph.) His platelet counts have gone something like this: 4, 33, 96, 23, 8, 44. (You can probably guess where the transfusions happened.) His hemoglobin has been less sporadic: 8.7, 7.2, 10.4, 10.4, 8.7. His white blood count has held steady right around 2.5. Those numbers might not mean anything to you, but it's like an unfolding saga for me. I never know what they're going to do next. 

In other news, while some of our more trivial plans continue to fall through (see above), we still are on hold for the really big plans (i.e., treatment). We got the results back for all of the infections they tested for as a possible cause of this disease, and they all came back negative. This probably means that we will never find out a cause (which is the case for 80% of the cases). However, we are still waiting for the genetic test results to come back, as well as the one that has all of us on the edge of our seats: the bone marrow results from our other kids.

So we wait. And we make plans. And those plans fall through. And we make some more plans. And we wait again. This is the cycle we're in right now. It's not exactly fun, but for the most part, it's not too bad. There have been so many sweet moments and tender mercies and little miracles. But I think I'll save those for another post. 

P.S. Thank you all so much for your love and support, encouragement and prayers. They mean the world to us. 

A Little of This and That in July

Aug 11, 2019

In spite of the way the month ended, July was mostly a fun and busy month. For the record, we spent our time . . .

Welcoming . . . Mike's parents home from Germany. For the last four years, my in-laws have been in Europe on a Church assignment. They would come back to the US for General Conference and for a few weeks in the summer, but other than that, they were very far way. But they recently got reassigned to Salt Lake City, and on July 1st, they flew home to stay! We are all so happy and grateful to have them back. Some of my kids (Ian, Clark) can't even remember what it was like when they lived here.

Showering . . . my mom with birthday cards. My mom had a big birthday this year (sixty!), and so I organized a massive card drop from family and friends. For the week surrounding her birthday, her mailbox was flooded with birthday cards from loved ones far and near. She loved it. All told, I think she received close to one hundred cards.

Catching . . . candy at a parade. I love parades. I think it's because I grew up in a small town where our little parade every summer was a big deal. I just always think that parades should be a part of summer. Unfortunately, it has not been a tradition that I've been able to get to stick with our family. We've gone to a parade here and there over the years but not with any regularity, partly because Mike feels the opposite about parades. But this 4th of July, we weren't out of town, so I convinced everyone to go to our little community parade in the morning. And it was one of the best parade experiences we've ever had. It helped that the temperature was about twenty degrees cooler than it normally is in July, and we found a nice shady spot to to watch. But more than that, it was just so fun to see tons of people we knew, both in the parade and on the sidelines. I guess it had that same community feel as the one from my childhood, and I loved that. And of course my kids loved it because they were showered with candy, and we came home with more than on Halloween. It was a perfect way to start off the holiday.

Celebrating . . . our nation's independence with a parade (already mentioned), hamburgers and hot dogs, a water fight, the slip and slide, a pinewood derby race, a bike ride, and fireworks (which, turns out, I like less and less every year).

Riding . . . my bike with my mom. When we were at my parents' house for the 4th of July, my mom and I went on a bike ride together. She rides her bike almost every day, and I wanted to see the route that she usually goes on. Basically, I came home super jealous that she has several great bike trails so close to her house.

Spending . . . a weekend at the cabin. Soon after Mike's parents got home, we went up to the family cabin with them for a couple of days. They had two of our nephews with them, and it was one of the most enjoyable visits we've ever had. Ian stayed busy trying to throw every available rock and stone into the little stream, and the big boys roamed around looking for snakes and bugs. Aaron built a little lean-to next to a tree, with help from his cousin, Tyler. There were many rounds of Skull King and delicious doughnuts and ice cream. Mike's dad gave all of the boys a forty-minute presentation on fire arms safety (they stayed riveted for the entire duration of the lecture), and then he took them all shooting, and Mike's mom and I put Ian down for a nap and were then left with a perfectly quiet cabin, which was heavenly. We loved getting some good one-on-one time with them for a couple of days.

Saying . . . goodbye to our nephew, James, who left on a church mission to Perth, Australia. We're entering the stage in Mike's family where all of the nephews (I say nephews because it's almost all boys for the first ten years or so) are going to start leaving in droves, and I can hardly stand it. We're going to miss James, but I'm just glad he finally had a reason to cut his hair, haha.

Kicking . . . off our summer of reunions (all told, we have four) by going to the Washburn family reunion. I used to get really burned out by reunions because it was just a lot of people for a lot of time, but I've learned that if I give myself a couple of hours of quiet in the afternoon, I enjoy my time with everyone a lot more. (And luckily, since I still have a child who naps, sneaking away for a couple of hours is actually really easy.) My kids, on the other hand, don't seem to need a quiet break at all. They were all about all of the games and activities and were filthy enough by the end of the day to prove it. We came home tired but so happy that we got to spend time with so many loved ones.

Swimming . . . with my brother and his family. My brother prides himself on still being a fun uncle even though he has kids of his own, and he proved it at the pool with a rousing game of Keep Away.

Braving . . . Girls' Camp. I am currently serving in the Young Women organization in my ward, which means I had the opportunity to go to camp! And aside from lying awake for hours in the cold and dark on the first night, I had an awesome time. We made bracelets, sang camp songs, performed a ukulele number in the talent show, went on a bike ride, listened to an inspiring devotional, shared our testimonies, and gave lots of hugs. It reminded me of all the girls' camps I went to as a teenager, and I remembered things I hadn't thought of in years. Most of all, I just enjoyed being with the girls and leaders. I was so inspired by the attitude and kindness and creativity of the girls, and I am so grateful I got to hang out with them when they weren't glued to their phones. (Also, it was only two nights, which I know a lot of people had mixed feelings about, but I loved that it was shorter because a) it made it easier for me to make childcare arrangements for my kids, b) it was easier for the younger girls to be away from home, c) we ended on a high note instead of getting to the point where everyone was melting down, and d) I only had to sleep on the ground for two nights, ha!).

Wondering . . . why I have to freeze in the winter and the summer. Even though Mike claims he isn't keeping the house as cool as he would like it, I still find myself shivering and going outside just so I can thaw out a little bit. Meanwhile, anytime we go anywhere, Mike searches for the shadiest spot to park the car and even chases it around throughout the day so the car doesn't heat up too much.

Finishing . . . three, yes THREE, knitting projects: a hat, a shirt, and a pair of slippers. It felt good to finally finish some projects instead of just start them.

Taking . . . swimming lessons. Maxwell and Bradley took stroke development with Coach Tom, and they learned so much. (I still regret not taking a video of all of the swimmers' first attempts at the butterfly--it was so funny.) Towards the end of it, their teacher asked if they would consider joining the swim team. Since Aaron is already on it, it was something I was already thinking about, but I'm very conscious of over scheduling them, so we'll have to see if we can cut out something else.

Checking . . .  off family reunion #2, this one with Mike's dad's side of the family. It was just a one-day affair filled with 9-square, can jam, face painting, crafts, water bounce house, lots of visiting, and food. Sometimes I hear people talk about extended family reunions as something to be endured or an event that only the senior members of the family care about, but that is not the way I feel about these extended reunions at all. I love catching up with everyone and meeting the new babies and seeing the transformation that happens with the kids over a couple of years. Maybe it's just because these are some of the nicest people on the planet, so who wouldn't want to brush shoulders for a day?

Heading . . . to Lake Tahoe for a family vacation. My brother, Gordy, and his family came with us, and we had the best time. I'd do it again in a heartbeat . . . even with a tantrumy two-year-old. I'll share more highlights soon.

Doing . . . a little flashback. One morning, Ian was outside saying goodbye to Mike. He wasn't wearing a shirt, and it reminded me of a photo of Aaron around the same age. So I had to recreate it.

Turning . . . eleven! In spite of being excited for his birthday, Aaron couldn't think of anything he wanted to do to celebrate. So we kept the festivities to a minimum: presents, dinner with my brother's family, and pie. (A couple of weeks later, Mike took Aaron and some cousins to a space center, so we eventually did do something special.) At eleven, Aaron is still quiet and easy going and just plain nice, but he is also brave and ambitious and willing to try new things.

Ending . . . the month on a rather bad note: in the hospital, receiving the news that Aaron has a rare blood disease.

Hoping and praying for lots of good news in August!

Let God Show His Hand

Aug 4, 2019

When your pediatrician calls you at 7:15 in the morning and the first words out of his mouth are, "Is your husband at home?" you know he is not calling just to tell you that your son's blood tests came back normal.

That phone call came on Wednesday this week, and it's been quite the whirlwind of questions and emotions and fears ever since.

Over these past few days as we've told family and a few friends what has been going on, I realized that I needed to record all of the information in one place. It's just so easy for misinformation to spread or things to be exaggerated (all with good intentions, of course), so here are the facts: how it happened, what we know, what we don't know, what we're hoping for. (Mike told me I should give a little summary paragraph here at the beginning, but I think I'd rather take you on this roller coaster ride with us.)

But first, I'm going to give a little bit of background before the pediatrician's phone call.

On Monday, Aaron celebrated his 11th birthday. We had just returned from a family vacation to Lake Tahoe, so it was fairly low-key as far as birthdays are concerned, but he received presents and ate birthday pie, so it was a good day.

The next day, Tuesday, I took him to his annual checkup with our pediatrician, Dr. V. During the course of the appointment, I pointed out several bruises on Aaron's arms and legs and mentioned that he had been getting a lot of those this summer. That's not necessarily abnormal for an active boy who is spending a lot of time playing outside, but the concerning part to me was that he never could identify a cause. There was no, "Oh yeah, I fell off my ripstick" or "I whacked my arm coming up the stairs." They just kind of seemed to be appearing. Dr. V. looked at the bruises and then pointed out that Aaron also had some tiny red spots under his skin (called petechiae), which neither of us had even noticed.

Then the doctor abruptly left the topic and continued the rest of the exam. I thought that was a little odd but just figured it wasn't something he was concerned about. But then, as he was finishing things up, he said, "I'd like to do a few blood tests just as a precaution. He's probably just an active 11-year-old boy, but I'd like to be sure. And I also think it's best if we don't do any vaccines today."

Maybe I should have picked up on his tone and mannerism a little more, but I honestly didn't give it much thought beyond telling Mike that it had happened.

So now we're back up to the phone call. My phone started ringing; I didn't recognize the number, so I decided not to answer it because I couldn't think of anyone except a telemarketer who would be calling so early in the morning. But I still checked the voice mail, and when I heard the doctor's voice, I have to admit that I started to feel sick. Mike had already left for work, and I wondered if I should have him come home before I called the doctor back. But a part of me just needed to know right then.

So I called him, and that's when he said, "Is your husband home?" And I knew it had to be very bad news. He quickly told me, "Aaron's blood tests came back, and they don't look particularly good. We have an idea of what it might be. It looks like leukemia. I'm so sorry."

As the news hit my heart, it shattered.

I hung up the phone and immediately called Mike (it took five tries before he picked up), and then all I could get out was, "You need to come home. Right now."

Dr. V. mentioned that he had received the lab report the night before around 11:30pm and had spoken with an oncologist then, but he decided it would be best to wait until morning before calling me. I went back to the night before in my head, and I knew exactly what I was doing at 11:30pm. Mike had been working late and had just texted to say he wouldn't be done for at least another hour, so I texted back that I was going to go to bed. I had this strange out-of-body moment where I pictured the doctor talking on the phone with the oncologist at the same time I was texting Mike good night. It was somewhat surreal.

I think one of the hardest moments from the past week happened right then, as I sat in my bedroom waiting for Mike to get home. I suddenly thought of Aaron, peacefully sleeping in the bedroom right below me, not having any inkling of how his life was about to change. The tears streamed down as I pictured his sweet, sleeping face. I dreaded the moment when he would wake up, and we would have to tell him.

As it happened, Mike was blunt and to the point: "Well, Aaron, your life is about to get exciting." To which I quickly added, "But not in a good way." He took it as he takes most things--quietly, with a smile (although an apprehensive one this time), no questions.

I have to tell you that as we entered the hospital, a sense of dread pressed in heavy on me. I had the thought, I am probably going to get to know this place really well, followed closely with, I don't want to know anything about it. And then, a thought that came mere seconds after the doctor's phone call and which has continued to come in the days since: Let God show His hand.

That thought put itself on repeat as we navigated the halls and went into the Cancer and Blood Clinic. Actually, it went something like this: I hate this place. Let God show His hand. I don't want Aaron to have to be here. Let God show His hand. I want to leave. Let God show His hand.

I can't speak for Aaron or Mike, but this was the roller coaster of emotions I was riding that day.

Aaron's initial exam was done by a resident who showed us his lab reports. I wish I had written down all of the numbers, but the only one I remember was his platelet count. They like to see it around 150,000. Aaron's was at 4,000. The resident, almost soothingly, said, "It's a little low." Aaron later pointed out that that number had also had an exclamation point after it.

When the attending physician came in, she said that after looking at the blood tests, they thought it was one of three things: acute lymphoblastic leukemia, acute myelogenous leukemia, or aplastic anemia. She wanted to run a few more blood tests, which she hoped would give a more conclusive diagnosis.

So they put in an IV (quite traumatic as it turned out; Aaron wanted to watch, but he started to hyperventilate, and I thought he was going to faint before they got all the blood they needed). Then they sent us away for a couple of hours while they waited for results. We went to grab some lunch. We were all quiet and somber, and my appetite was completely gone.

When we got back to the hospital, the doctor told us the blood tests pointed to leukemia but they would need to do a bone marrow biopsy to determine which type. They gave Aaron a platelet transfusion and did a chest x-ray, and then we went home for the night (one of the many times I felt so grateful for our close proximity to the hospital).

That first night, just before I attempted to go to sleep, I read this scripture in the book of Psalms: "The Lord is nigh unto them of a broken heart" (Psalms 34:18). My heart truly did feel broken, and I held those words close as I wept in the dark.

The next morning, we arrived at the hospital early. They did another blood draw, decided that Aaron needed more platelets, and then prepared for the bone marrow biopsy. It was a short procedure, but they put Aaron under general anesthesia to do it.

Once it was done, Aaron was admitted to Primary Children's hospital, and we waited for results. He got an echocardiogram in the meantime. They wanted him to have one to use as a baseline for the future.

The oncologist and the resident returned mid-afternoon to say that they had done a flow cytometry test on the bone marrow, but they weren't seeing the cell types they were expecting. So they still couldn't determine which type of leukemia Aaron probably had. Instead, they were going to have to look directly at the bone, and they wouldn't have that pathology report for another few hours.

Even with inconclusive results, they still laid out a plan for the next day: Aaron would begin fasting at midnight and then the next morning, he would have a central line put in (either a port or a broviac, depending on which type of leukemia it was). During the surgery, they would also do a lumbar tap to check for cancer in the spinal fluid. And then, after all of that, Aaron would get his first dose of chemo.

But the next day did not go according to plan at all.

Mike stayed with Aaron overnight, and when I got there the next morning (after having to pry Ian away from me because he was determined not to be left for the third day in a row), the resident was just leaving. She didn't have much information, but they still didn't have the clear diagnosis they wanted, so they were putting off the surgery for the day. It looked like it was going to be a long day of waiting, so Mike decided to go to work for a few hours (he works five minutes from the hospital--another blessing).

A few hours later, the oncologist and resident were back, and this time, they sat down and said, "We have some good news and some bad news. The good news is, Aaron does not have leukemia. The bad news is, he has aplastic anemia."

The news sent us reeling. At first, there was sweet relief. On the surface, something with "anemia" in the name sounded a lot less scary than cancer, and I couldn't help but latch onto the words, "We have to do some more tests, so we won't be able to start treatment right away, so Aaron can go home tonight." That sounded great to us.

But after the doctor dumped all of this new information on us and left, I did the thing you're never supposed to do: I looked up aplastic anemia on the internet. And then I got scared again.

Aplastic anemia is a condition where your body stops making blood cells. As Mike has explained it to people, "It's kind of like the opposite of leukemia. Instead of your body going crazy and making too many white blood cells, it just shuts down and stops making blood completely." And blood, as you know, is kind of important.

The doctor returned a few hours later and basically went over everything again a second time (Mike had actually been gone when they came in earlier), and I was a little better prepared to take in information that time.

Here's what she told us: they don't know what caused Aaron to develop this condition. There is a slight chance it could be hereditary (but she doesn't think so because Aaron does not have any of the  physical abnormalities that are usually a sign of this). More likely, it was brought on by a recent infection or may have even resulted from some sort of chemical exposure (although I have no idea what this would be).

They decided to run some more tests to look for a cause (they must be checking for a lot of things because they took a lot of blood). It will take 3-4 weeks for all of these to come back. There are really only two types of treatment for AA. Either Aaron needs a bone marrow transplant (which is their first choice for treatment) or he will have to do immunotherapy. They will only do the transplant if he has a perfectly matched sibling to be a donor. If none of our kids end up being a match, then they will put him on immunosuppressant drugs. Either way, it is going to be a lot of time at the hospital.

As for right now, we are on hold for a little bit while we wait for all of the results to come back. Before they discharged Aaron, they gave him a blood transfusion because his hemoglobin was low (normal levels are around 12; his was 7). Now he will begin weekly blood draws to check his levels, and if they are too low, he will get transfusions. We will also have all of our other kids tested to see if any of them are a bone marrow match for Aaron (we are praying so much that one of them is!).

So that's the news for right now. The doctor did give us a very thin slice of hope that Aaron might heal on his own. This occasionally happens (although in the research I've done, this usually only happens with moderate, not severe, cases). Luckily since he can't begin treatment for a month, we have time to see if his body starts making blood again.

Although this is rather devastating news, aplastic anemia has a very good overall prognosis. It definitely feels less jolting than leukemia. We can kind of ease into the diagnosis a bit since we can't start anything yet. Aaron gets to be home (although he has been banned from the tramp, his bike, his ripstick, and any other potentially hazardous activity until he has a normal platelet count again), and he will probably even get to start school.

People have asked how Aaron is doing, and the answer is, it's difficult to tell. He has always been a fairly quiet kid who doesn't show a ton of emotion and rarely complains. Over the last week, he had a ton of people constantly asking him, "Do you have any questions? How do you feel? Is there anything I can do for you?" and he rarely had any information to give them. Besides the IV incident, the only other time I saw him react was when a nurse was flushing his IV (that darn IV!). He suddenly put out his other hand and said, "That actually really hurts." Just like that, calm as could be, but I could tell it must have been really painful to have him ask for her to stop. Even the nurse was like, "I have never seen a kid react so calmly when they're in pain." But from then on, anytime they needed to flush his IV, he was quick to ask, "And can you please do it slowly?"

During his three days at the hospital, he felt the love and support of so many (and we were so impressed with all of the doctors, nurses, and staff--that hospital was definitely designed with kids in mind). He had quite the parade of visitors, and they all helped boost his spirits so much. He loved passing away an hour playing a game or talking. All of his brothers even came by for a visit, and I think they all felt slightly jealous with all of the attention he was receiving. It's easy to see the gifts and treats and fun instead of the boredom and pain and fear.

I think the most difficult part for me right now is I kind of feel like we're in this state of uncertainty: we really don't know what the next few weeks will hold as we gather more information, and I don't know how much to plan or if I just need to stay completely flexible. And I also feel a certain amount of distrust. I know a misdiagnosis is quite common (and after reading more about AA, it sounds like many people were originally diagnosed with leukemia), but it makes me a little bit wary of this diagnosis as well. Are they going to come back and tell me Aaron actually has something else?

But through it all, I just keep thinking, Let God show His hand. For me, that simply means giving God the opportunity to perform miracles and provide tender mercies. It means saying, "Okay, Heavenly Father, this is what we've got going on. What can You do with it?" Aaron doesn't have to bear this alone. We don't have to navigate this new situation alone. We have many hands to hold us up, but especially the hands of the One who created all things and knows the end from the beginning.

We would be so grateful if you would keep Aaron and our family in your prayers.

Three Recent Readalouds: "B" is for Betsy, The Show Must Go On, and Gooney Bird Greene

Jul 22, 2019

A couple of months ago, with the approach of his fifth birthday, I felt like I needed to make more of a concerted effort to invite Clark to listen when I was reading aloud to the other boys. I mean, the invitation was always there, but he almost always opted for Mike to read a picture book to him instead (definitely not a bad thing). I couldn't really blame him since the last few books we had read hadn't exactly been preschool-friendly.

So I followed my own advice and picked several books with short chapters, lots of pictures, and characters/plot that would appeal to a five-year-old. My older boys were super accommodating, which proves that kids just love to be read to, even if it's not what they would choose to read on their own.

1. "B" is for Betsy by Carolyn Haywood

This was a really sweet and adorable story. It felt like a cross between Betsy-Tacy and Ramona with that innocent old-school charm (it was first published in 1939) and just a touch of spunkiness (although not up to Ramona levels).

Betsy enters first grade at the beginning of the story (which, we soon realized, was more like kindergarten would be today). She meets Ellen on the first day, and they become fast friends. She gets lost on her way to school. Under her teacher's gentle supervision, her classroom grows tadpoles, organizes a gift for an older friend in need, and create their own circus.

You might think that this story would be too old-fashioned or too girly for my kids, but the truth is, we all enjoyed it. And it was especially a winner for Clark. The plot wasn't intense or complicated. He could keep track of all of the characters. And he latched onto all of Betsy's little adventures because, even in 2019, they still sounded like just the kind of thing he'd like to do, too.

Although this wasn't Clark's first time listening to a chapter book, it was the first time with all of his older brothers listening as well. And I think it made him feel like part of the club. He enjoyed jumping in with the answers when we did a little review every night and coming up with his own ideas for what was going to happen.

And it meant he got to have his back scratched, which Clark is always in favor of.

2. The Show Must Go On! by Kate and Sarah Klise

This was our second readaloud with Clark. And while it was a cute story, in retrospect, I actually wish I hadn't read it aloud.

I always say that first readalouds should have lots of pictures, but it turns out that it actually is possible to have too many pictures, and this book is the perfect example. There were pictures on almost every page, which in and of itself wasn't necessarily a bad thing. The problem was that many of the pictures contained speech bubbles or other textual information that was actually critical to the plot of the story but that had to be explained if you weren't reading it yourself (i.e., "This is a conversation between Gert and Bert"). It was a bit like reading a graphic novel aloud, which would be very difficult.

When Sir Sidney decides to take a much needed rest and go on vacation, he leaves his circus in the seemingly capable hands of Barnabas Brambles. But Barnabas is only interested in making money, and in just a short week's time, he has effectively done way more damage than good and has literally only made a dollar in the process.

It was a fun story, and we made it work as a readaloud, but I honestly think it would have been much more enjoyable for my kids if they had just read it on their own.

3. Gooney Bird Greene by Lois Lowry

I started reading this one with just Clark, but the other boys were around during the final three chapters, and even though they pretended they weren't listening, they totally were (especially Max, who picked up the book after we were finished so that he could read the first four chapters).

Turns out, this was actually a really easy book to just jump into the middle of because each chapter is kind of its own self-contained story. In fact, the art of storytelling is really the whole point of the book.

When Gooney Bird Greene arrives at Watertower Elementary, everyone can tell she isn't an ordinary girl (and it isn't just her name, although that alone is enough to make a person look twice). When Mrs. Pidgeon teaches the class about the format of a good story (it must have a beginning, middle, and end, etc.), all of the students agree that the story they most want to hear is about Gooney Bird Greene. And since that puts Gooney Bird right smack in the middle of everything, she is happy to oblige by sharing absolutely true stories about herself.

The thing is, they don't sound like true stories. One of them is titled "How Gooney Bird Came from China on a Flying Carpet." Another, "Beloved Catman is Consumed by a Cow." But by the end, the kids realize that Gooney Bird actually has lived a fairly ordinary life, but when presented in just the right way, it sounds rather extraordinary.

We liked this book, but it wasn't until the final chapter that I finally saw the genius behind it, and then I kind of loved it. Everything came together beautifully as Gooney Bird revisited the stories she had told and showed the class how each one of them also has similar experiences that are just waiting to be told.

I don't know if teachers use this book as a way to introduce the story format, but I can't imagine that they don't. This book is just too perfect not to use in a classroom setting.

What are some other short, easy readalouds Clark would enjoy?

A Little of This and That in June

Jul 7, 2019

June was bliss. Pure bliss. I wouldn't have changed a thing about it. Now we're into July, which is crazy busy and packed full of trips and reunions and activities, and I'm just so glad we had June to really soak in what summer is all about. You might have found us . . .

Creating . . . giant bubbles. We've tried giant bubbles before, but this formula was the golden ticket. The boys stuck their sticks and string into the solution, and then held them in the right direction of the breeze, and the bubbles grew and expanded and gently floated away. It was amazing. It entertained us for a good hour, and we didn't stop until we ran out of the solution.

Reading . . . a ton! Our family summer reading program is in full swing, and so far the boys have been raking in the prizes. The first week, Maxwell read 22 hours, and the second week Aaron read 24. Popular prizes this year have been iTunes songs, popsicle coupons for the pool, and extra minutes of screen time. Aaron burned through the Series of Unfortunate Events, and Max is still plugging away on the many Warriors series. Even Clark has been logging away the hours, and consequently, his reading has been rapidly improving.

Eating . . . doughnuts. The first Friday of the month brought National Doughnut Day, and we celebrated with a box of melt-in-your-mouth glazed doughnuts. This is not the only day of the year that we eat doughnuts (are you kidding??), but it's funny how my kids look forward to this day with great anticipation. This year also brought a well-timed lesson for Clark. We picked up enough doughnuts for everyone in the family to have two each. Clark took his first one, and then ran off to the neighbors' to invite his two friends over for a doughnut . . . except that we hadn't bought enough to feed all of the neighborhood kids as well. When they showed up, we told Clark that he would need to split his second doughnut in half to give to them. Well, that wasn't his plan at all, and he went crazy at the realization that he was going to miss his other doughnut. I was actually so glad it happened exactly as it did because it was a perfect real-life lesson. Clark is often very rash and spontaneous and doesn't think through consequences. Of course I want him to be generous, but in this situation, he just expected someone else to give up their doughnut for his friends instead of him. I hope next time he will talk through his plans with us instead of heedlessly making promises he doesn't actually want to keep.

Suffering . . . through a case of swimmer's ear. It's kind of surprising that with all of our swimming, this was our first time dealing with this infamous side effect. And I think Aaron (the unlucky victim) hopes he never has to deal with it again. Even though we took him to the doctor and got him on antibiotics pretty quickly after the initial onset of pain, it still took him a good five days to recover. If anyone has any great tips for guarding against it in the future, we are all ears (wink, wink).

Reaching . . . the terrible twos. We thought we might get past this phase unscathed, but apparently Ian was just a late bloomer. In June, he turned into the most contrary, obstinate, bossy child I ever did see, and it's taking a toll on all of us. But he makes up for it when I put him down for a nap and he says, "I love you soooooo much."

Writing . . . for the Johnson Times. At the beginning of summer break, Aaron and Maxwell decided to start a newspaper. They each created a comic strip (Aaron: Hobo Joe; Maxwell: Monsters) and took turns writing a couple of articles for each issue. They kept up a daily circulation for about a week before it fizzled, but I quite enjoyed it while it lasted.

Going . . . to see Matilda at our favorite local theater. A year ago, we took Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley to see Newsies there as one of the rewards for making progress on their summer goals, and at that time, the 2019 schedule was already out. They saw that Matilda would be performing this summer, and they were wild to see it. Out of all of the books they've ever read, Matilda is quite possibly their very favorite. They have listened to it probably at least one hundred times. So we decided it could be their first goals reward of the summer. But as our ticket date got closer, I began to feel less enthusiastic about it because my sister-in-law had seen it with her girls and given it a less-than-glowing review. She said it hadn't kept the Roald Dahl feel, and I knew if that was true, it was the one thing I wouldn't be able to look past. But the opening song didn't give that impression at all. And as the play progressed, the more I loved it: the vibrant, whimsical sets, the surprising dissonant notes in the songs, and the highly stylized acting all contributed to bring Matilda to life. But best of all, it exuded that dark and twisty, but in the end triumphant atmosphere I've come to expect (and love) from Roald Dahl. The cast was full of children, and I was so impressed by all of them that when the play was over, I jumped to my feet because I wanted to make sure my standing ovation was for them, too. Maybe my expectations were just low, but it far surpassed them in every way. I love when that happens.

Shaving . . . five seconds off his breast stroke. Aaron had a swim meet and competed in the 100 freestyle, 50 breast stroke, and 50 backstroke. He did well in all three, but he was especially excited to take five seconds off his old 50 breast stroke time.

Chancing . . . a thunderstorm in favor of a hike. We had planned to go on a hike one evening, but as we were getting ready to leave, our valley was surrounded by dark clouds. So we ditched our planned hike and headed for the one bright patch of sky on the horizon, which turned out to be the Mueller Park Trail. We were able to get in a decent hike before the clouds caught up to us, and we reached our car just as the first rain drops began to fall, which meant we timed it just about perfectly.

Gaining . . . new swimming skills. Clark did two weeks of swimming lessons at the beginning of June and learned how to push off from the wall in a back float, move his arms in a big way, and take side breaths.

Celebrating . . . Father's Day. Ever since Aaron and Maxwell were small, we have filled out little questionnaires for Father's Day. I come up with different questions every year and then interview the boys to find out their answers (I do this even after they are perfectly capable of reading and writing on their own). Then we add a photo and drawing on the other side and I laminate the whole thing. My kids love reading back through their answers from years ago, and it's become a fun little keepsake. This year was Ian's first time to participate, and his answers were . . . unique. The evening of Father's Day, we went over to my parents' house for dinner, so I got to celebrate my own dad as well.

Tasting . . . chocolate ice cream. Just for fun, we did a blind taste test of six different brands of chocolate ice cream and then ranked them. The contestants were Kroger, Cheap, Hรคagen-Dazs, Graeters, Bryers, and Howdy Homemade (a local ice cream shop). The clear winner was Howdy Homemade, but it was surprisingly difficult to differentiate between quality once your palette was saturated by chocolate, and I'm embarrassed to admit that the Kroger was equally delicious to me.

Hiking . . . the "Y." Later in the month, we went down to Provo to hike our beloved Y Mountain. The boys had seen the Y many times, but this was their first time hiking the trail. We chose a day when the temperature had dropped by twenty degrees, which was a good thing since that trail is in full sun the entire time. It is a relatively short hike but very steep, and I wondered if Clark was going to be able to handle it. But he did amazing! In fact, the only child that we had any trouble with at all was Ian (who shouldn't have complained since he was getting a free ride on Mike's back). We hiked to both the bottom of the Y and the top. I think all of my kids were surprised that going back down the trail was actually harder (or at least more painful) than going up. Mike and I both had achy knees by the time we reached the bottom. We're getting old. Afterwards we went to Brick Oven (a popular Provo pizza joint), and we all agreed that ice cold root beer never tasted so good.

Seeing . . . my first manuscript published! Okay, not my manuscript. Do you remember that I read and review manuscripts for a small publishing company? Well one of the first manuscripts I read (which was about 18 months ago) was published this month! It is called Dreams as Revelation, and it was so fun to page through it and see what it grew up to be! Even though I only had a very small part in it, it still gave me a little thrill to hold the hard copy in my hands.

Touring . . . a few homes. My mom had tickets to Parade of Homes this year. I had never been before, so I went to see a few houses with her. We picked the biggest ones, as one does, one of which was over 22,000 square feet and came with an indoor racket ball court, two swimming pools, a huge gym, a theater, and an indoor tennis court. And all of that, but only the tiniest little loft with a few measly bookshelves. I know! Definitely not the house for me.

Taking . . . a knitting class with my sister, Anna. I had been wanting to learn the brioche technique but it seemed really difficult and intimidating. So when I saw that my local yarn shop was offering a class teaching this technique, I jumped on it. And then I convinced my sister to take it with me so that I would have some company. We practiced the technique by making a simple hat (which incorporated both one-color and two-color brioche). True to the rumors, it was a little bit tricky at first (it kind of breaks some of the most basic knitting rules, which requires a bit of a mind shift), but once I got the hang of it, it wasn't difficult at all. And it creates a very bouncy fabric that is a delight to squish! I'm so glad I could take the class with Anna. It was so great to spend time with her, and I loved working on the same project and being able to check in with her. It makes me think we should choose another pattern to work on together.

Switching . . . bedrooms. For the last two and a half years, Maxwell has been sharing a bedroom with Clark, and he was ready for a change. So we did a little bedroom switcheroo, and now Aaron and Maxwell are together, and Bradley and Clark are together. (Ian is still in his own room.) I was a little nervous about how it would all go down, but so far, I think it's been a positive change. I can remember rearranging my room when I was kid, and it always seemed to breathe new life into a tired old space. This had the same effect.

Catching . . . a fish. We don't have the greatest luck with fishing, but the boys are always eager to give it another try. Mike sometimes checks to see if any of the lakes have been recently restocked, so when he saw Silver Lake on the list, we decided to head up there for the evening. It's one of our favorite spots anyway, but it was an added bonus when Bradley caught a lovely rainbow trout. And that led to Maxwell finally fulfilling his dream to gut a fish.

Watching . . . the miraculous metamorphosis process. We bought a cup of five caterpillars and had so much fun watching them transform throughout the month. They started out as the tiniest, itty-bitty caterpillars and got noticeably bigger every day. Then, one by one, they spun silk and hung from the lid in a J-shape. We were fortunate to catch all five of the caterpillars turn into chrysalides, which was kind of unbelievable since it only takes about ninety seconds from start to finish. Two of the chrysalides formed at exactly the same time. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. Then, exactly a week later, all five emerged as pretty painted lady butterflies. We watched them for a few hours, and even kept one of them overnight, and then let all of them fly away into the wide blue sky. We loved watching the whole process so much. I'm sure we'll do it again.

Enduring . . . Ian's antics. Just to give you a sampling of the kind of mischief we're dealing with, one day I went into the bathroom to put in my contacts only to find my contact case already open and my contacts missing, supposedly rinsed down the drain. Another day, Ian was playing in the car, and I was doing things in the house. I heard him come inside, push a chair over to the dryer, grab a set of keys from the basket, go back outside, and by the time I chased him out there, he had inserted the CORRECT key into the ignition. He's up to no good these days.

Reaping . . . a harvest. Our garden has been quite successful so far. The spinach, peas, basil, rhubarb, and raspberries have already been producing, and we've been trying to keep up with everything as well as we can. It looks like we will also have a crop of zucchini, tomatoes, blackberries, green beans, carrots, beets, onions, watermelon, squash,and possibly peppers (they're still looking a little weak). It is so fun to go out to the garden and check up on the progress of everything.

Overcoming . . . his fear of the water. Ian had a rough entry into the pool this year. The big boys were a little overzealous when he wore his floaty for the first time. They yanked him away from the step to try to show him how well he could float and instead he felt super insecure and unsafe. For the next few weeks, whether he had his floaty on or not, he refused to leave the top step of the pool. Sometimes I would take him out with me, but he just screamed the entire time until I put him back on the step. But little by little, I coaxed him out, and he is finally happily bobbing around in the water.

There's more. Of course there's more. But I can't mention everything, and that's a pretty good recap for now.

How's your summer going so far?

Upstairs at the White House: My Life With the First Ladies by J.B. West

Jul 3, 2019

When I was growing up, my mom always tuned into Paul Harvey on the radio while she was making lunch. Besides the news and interesting stories, he also had a segment called The Rest of the Story where he revealed the little known history behind famous and well-known events.

This book was a little like that radio segment, giving a backdoor view of some of America's First Families.

J.B. West served as Assistant to the Chief Usher and then later as Chief Usher of the White House from 1941 to 1969. I have to admit, before I read this book, I didn't even know there was such a position as "Chief Usher," but basically Mr. West's job was to work directly with the First Ladies, helping each one make the White House her home, ensuring that social events ran smoothly, overseeing the staff, and generally helping with all of the ins and outs of daily life. As such, he had a unique view of the President of the United States and his family, one that was often more personal than was portrayed by the media.

During his time at the White House, he served Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, and Pat Nixon. As each presidency turned over, Mr. West introduced the reader to the new First Lady and immediately shared little anecdotal stories that helped create a clear impression of this woman that contrasted sharply with all of the others. These women did not run together in a blur of First Ladies. Each one was uniquely her own person.

As I neared the end of the book, I wrote down the name of each First Lady and any words that came to mind that would help me remember her. These are merely my own observations and as such are not necessarily an accurate or complete representation of these women:

Eleanor Roosevelt: somewhat aloof, very busy, boundless energy, politically active, more interested in things outside of the White House than in it, distant relationship with the President

Bess Truman: simple, practical, not flashy, well-informed, adviser, private, very much in love with her husband and daughter

Mamie Eisenhower: vivacious, spunky, sparkly, opinionated, formal, elegant, high-class, openly affectionate

Jackie Kennedy: quiet, unassuming, sophisticated, witty, ambitious, educated, dedicated to history and the fine arts, unemotional 

Lady Bird Johnson: selfless, people-pleaser, social but private, loyal, friendly, hands off but particular 

Pat Nixon: reserved, decisive, warm (J.B. West only worked for her for six weeks, so she was the least well-known.)

One of the things that surprised me was how much freedom the First Ladies had to change around the White House and make it work for their families: bedrooms into dining rooms, the swimming pool into a press room (J.B.West's biggest regret), walls torn down and new ones built, a schoolroom designed for Caroline Kennedy and later transformed into a teenager hangout for Lucy Johnson, trees planted for privacy, furniture swapped in and out, a whole network of phone lines added, and the plumbing completely reworked to get strong enough water pressure for Lyndon Johnson (they were never able to actually please him).

I also appreciated how respectful J.B. West was of the privacy of the First Families. If you want a book that is full of scandalous details, this isn't it. And I felt like that was as it should be. Mr. West had a very personal relationship with each of the First Ladies, and trust was an integral part of that relationship. Even though the relationship technically ended once the President left office, I think it shows the kind of man that Mr. West was that he would still hold that trust sacred even once there wouldn't have been any negative repercussions.

And finally, there was just something so comforting in seeing the orderly way in which the Presidency was transferred each time. It was methodical and unemotional. At exactly 12:00 noon on the day of inauguration, the staff unpacked the new President's belongings with crisp efficiency so that by the time the First Family arrived, it was as if they had always lived there. In a world where emotions run high and people have strong opinions and biases, it is nice to know that some things continue to run the same no matter who is in office.

When I started reading this book, I didn't know that it would end up feeling like just the right lead-up for Independence Day. It was a hearkening back to the past while giving hope for the future, and its subtle undertone of patriotism was just perfect.
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