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Big Rocks

I ran out of time. For a year I intended to write about turning 50 - a contemplative, insightful piece extolling the wisdom gained from living for half a century, but in a few days I'll be 51. Gone the way of shoulder pads and stirrup pants, like it or not, the time has passed.
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I ran out of time. For a year I intended to write about turning 50 - a contemplative, insightful piece extolling the wisdom gained from living for half a century, but in a few days I'll be 51. Gone the way of shoulder pads and stirrup pants, like it or not, the time has passed.

I ran out of time even though I've tried diligently to slow down my life and clear some space.

Simplify, downsize, prioritize; these are my buzz words. Progress is evident, although the perfect balance wherein I fulfill my roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and fitness instructor, and manage to shave under my arms occasionally . . . this eludes me still.

The other night, out to dinner after one of the kids' choir concerts, my father-in-law glanced over as I checked my calendar on my phone, its colorful blocks stacked atop, beside and overlapping each other like a patchwork quilt. He looked from the screen to my face and, shaking his head, said, "You're too busy."

This, I know. How to change it, I do not.

"What can I cut, Dad?" I asked, a little exasperated, and more than a little desperate.

Life seems to be speeding up, or perhaps it's that more life is crammed into a single day. My parents' generation raised their families in a slower time, with far less electronic assistance. Take telephones. Then: a bulky plastic rotary unit, mounted permanently on the wall, its handset tethered by a 10-foot spiral cord, served the entire household. Compared to now: a smart phone, sleek and handheld, individually owned by every member of the family, able to - at virtually any time, any place - access limitless information and connect to limitless other smart phones.

Technology put the world at our fingertips, but the flip side is the 24-hour demand inherent with its accessibility.

We can virtually reach out and tap anyone on the shoulder at any time of day or night. It takes mere seconds to send and receive a message. What then, is a reasonable response time for emails and texts? 24 hours? 2 hours? 5 minutes? And what about Facebook messages and Instagram posts? Social media has crossed over, blending our personal and professional lives, blurring the lines.

Technology gave us a shorthand for instant gratification but idk if we r betr 4 it. Some days my smart phone is like an incessantly whining child, tugging at my sleeve, yelling louder and louder, "mom, mom, mom, mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, MOM, MOM, MOM!!"

During the last few weeks of school, my moderately frenetic pace as a mother kicks up to severely frantic. Routines out of whack, extra activities to manage and preparations to make for the upcoming summer holiday (truly a misnomer) send the needle on my stress gauge into the red. With Type-A drive I tackle numerous projects at once, the way I know best: with sleep deprivation and coffee. The goal is to knock out as many items as quickly as possible.

My monkey-mind chants an endless to-do list like a scrolling marquee across the bottom of screen on CNN. I'm running out of time.

This year, on top of it all, my daughter, Sydney, who has Down syndrome, spent the last ten days of school at home recovering from a tonsillectomy, the result of a sleep study and subsequent diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea (common in kids with DS). Small for her age of fourteen, with long strawberry-blond hair and a freckled face, she's adorable, and it's not just me who thinks so. Before surgery, she charmed the staff with her smiles and snappy comebacks, but afterward, my brave girl was miserable, and understandably, a bit grumpy. We stuck to an alternating 3-hour dosing of Tylenol and Motrin to keep the pain at bay. Armed with popsicles, ice cream, and mashed potatoes, we told her she could watch Disney Channel to her little heart's content.

Since she's my easy-going kid who doesn't complain often, stoic with a high tolerance for discomfort, I figured it would be, for the most part, business as usual. Meaning I'd be able to keep up with my job managing group fitness. My husband, Steven works from home as well and we arranged our schedules to trade off nursing our patient. When I had classes, he was there. When I was home, I fully anticipated toggling between making milkshakes and sending emails while Sydney rested quietly.

Uh, yeah. No.

She didn't really rest. In fact, she was rest-less, never settling for more than 30 minutes at a time. She couldn't focus on TV, it hurt too much to eat (even ice cream), and she had no interest in her iPad. She wanted to talk. To me.

"Um, excuse me, Mom?" Sydney queried from the table. "Why my voice is low [sic]?"

I answered from my computer without looking. "It's from your tonsils, remember?"

I'd just blended her a smoothie to chase the last round of medicine, hoping for a few free minutes to compose an email. "Don't worry. It won't last."

"Why can't I go to school?" she asked.

"Hmmmm?" I replied, fingers flying over the keys. "School?" I echoed, my brain constructing words into sentences on the screen in front of me.

Multi-tasking has been debunked; it is not a thing.

Rather, our attention rapidly fires, shifting back and forth between focuses; my focus was in front of me, not behind.

"Why am I not at school?" She repeated.

Mentally, I pulled my concentration away from the computer with effort. I could picture Sydney's face, though my back was to her; eyes opened wide behind purple wire-frames, eyebrows arched high, her mouth frozen in the shape of the last vowel sound she made. She'd asked this question every day, several times a day, for the last week.

"You know why," I said with a sigh, but without looking. "You tell me, why you aren't you in school, Syd?" My impatience thinly veiled in my voice.

"Because I had my tonsils out?" she asked, unsure.

This was her game; she was being coy, fishing for my response. I'd already noticed her strategy of waiting for me to pick up my phone, then immediately starting in with obvious questions to which she had the answers. The more I needed to think, the more she diverted. And the more she kept me from working, the more annoyed I became.

The afternoon's tasks spanned the display of my iMac in multiple open windows; new summer schedules for four gyms, several tabs on the web browser, iTunes, with playlists waiting to be organized for teaching, a newsletter in progress. And my calendar. Always my calendar.

Behind me, my daughter waited for an answer.

Realizing it had been several seconds, I turned and looked directly into her eyes. "Yes, honey," I said firmly, "because you had your tonsils out."

Her days were long and empty, her throat hurt badly, and she was lonely. My compassion stirred when she said, "I just miss my friends, Mom."

"I know, sweetie. I'm sorry." I got up and walked to her, resigned to the conversation for the moment.

Eyeing her empty cup, I gushed, "Good job! You drank your whole smoothie!" with over-the-top enthusiasm.

She soaked up the praise with a smile and a shy little shrug.

Making an attempt to address her feelings, I said softly, "I know you miss your friends, but you'll see them at yearbook signing, remember?"

She perked visibly at the mention. "Oh, yeah! Yearbook signing. On Thursday, right?"

"Yep. On Thursday."

I got up to take her cup to the sink. She sat without speaking as I rinsed dishes and loaded them into the dishwasher. I knew my daughter's angst, that she needed me. I heard her plea for attention.

But my monkey-mind chattered louder, tabulating how much was yet to do. Running. Out of time.

"Mom needs to get some work done now, Syd. Okay?"

She was quiet.

"How about a pudding?"

She nodded.

"Do you want anything else?" I asked. "I can put on a movie."

"No, I'm fine," Sydney said, matter-of-factly, looking away.

I registered her disappointment, but I was up against a deadline and the detailed work required focus. I sat down once again and the clacking of the keyboard filled the silence. For 15 seconds.

"Mom? Excuse me."

Like clockwork.

"Wow," I said, taking a deep breath. 'Patience, Lisa,' something within me warned. But, unheeding, I charged ahead. "You sure are talking a lot today. Doesn't that hurt your throat?"

"No," she answered defensively. "I just . . . I just . . . ," she said, reaching for the right words. Sydney has exemplary verbal skills, but sometimes expressing exactly what she means to say is tough. "I just . . . have tonsil breath," she stammered, referring to the inevitable halitosis following a tonsillectomy.

The doctor had told us, "She will have bad breath. Just turn your head when she talks." Though anticipated, the odor was quite unpleasant, and the days of her family avoiding face-to-face contact with Sydney was wearing on her self-esteem. And she knew this sympathetic point would provoke a response from me. My innocent child, far too vulnerable to be calculating, nonetheless, knew what she was doing, and couldn't stop herself. Drawing me from my work, keeping me engaged, baiting me continually, she was desperate for me to just look at her.

I didn't catch the rest of what she said; I was reading the three texts that just came in. My adrenaline rose with the tension in my shoulders.

"I know I'm . . . ," Sydney paused.

Monkey-mind. Chanted. Running. Out. Of. Time.

" . . . talking a lot, but . . .," she continued.

Tapped, done, no restraint left, I interjected with exaggerated animation, "Yes! A really LOT! And . . . you're driving me Cah-RAy-zeeeeee!"

An offhand remark meant to be deflecting; casual, yet careless, it stung with more bite than was intended. But I didn't know that. I went on with my work for a minute before a subtle energy, a silence far more permeating than her previous chitchat, unraveled my focus. I felt her more than heard her and turned around.

Grimacing with silent sobs, Sydney sat bent over her pudding, shoving bite after bite in her mouth until it overflowed out the sides. Inhaling sharply, she aspirated and coughed. Snot billowed from her nose until her face was a mass of chocolatey mucus.

"Oh, honey!" I jumped up and grabbed a Kleenex, wiping her nose and mouth quickly. "Swallow," I said, holding the straw of her water jug. "Breathe," I added and then took a big breath in myself. She cleared her throat repeatedly, before slowing her shaky breathing and trying to calm herself.

When we were both calmed down, she said so softly I could scarcely hear, "I get it, Mom."

Speaking with a wisdom I forgot she is capable of, her words held the implication that she did indeed understand how swamped I was and that she was doing her best not to need too much from me.

"I know we have a busy schedule?" she continued, her voice rising as in a question, shrugging and turning a palm up as if to say, 'it is what it is.' "But," her small voice quivered, "you're going to the gym and. . . ," she stopped and breathed in deeply. "And . . . and . . . I just . . . I really . . . miss you?"

The last two words came out high-pitched and barely audible. Her chin trembled. She tucked her head down and reached her index finger underneath her glasses, wiping fresh tears from her eyes. Lifting her head with a slow inhalation, she looked to see if I was listening, then choked out the words, "I . . . just . . . NEED . . . you!" And with that, she abandoned her fight to hold back the tide of her emotions.

Remorse hit me like a wave. My heart broke open wide and all the tightness loosened in my chest, sliding away as I gathered her in my arms. She buried her face in my belly and we both cried.

In the past I would have castigated myself for being a bad mother, but as an older parent, my compassion now extends to myself as well. With maturity comes the recognition that when overdoing drains me, I lack what she needs and I am unable to give what is just not there.

The wisdom gained over the years is that in order to take care of my daughter, I need to take care of myself.

I've known my over-busy, over-scheduling, over-doing lifestyle has to change. But how? I recall the analogy of 'first things first:' Time is represented by an empty glass jar, with finite volume. Sand, pebbles and rocks symbolize the many, many things that fill that time, ranging from very small to very large. If I fill the jar with sand and pebbles first, only a few big rocks will fit, and not well. But reverse the order and miraculously, the same space holds much more volume. In other words, if the big rocks are gonna fit, they've gotta go in first.

My problem? Everything is a big rock. I've missed the distinction between size and texture and value. But it doesn't have to be this way. I don't know whose permission I've been waiting for; whose jar is it, anyway? In my 50th year, these shifting perceptions and realigning priorities influence my choices more than external expectations. The voice I'm attuning to now comes from within - not without - myself. Sydney is a bona fide big rock along with my other children and my husband. And, what about me? Is it possible to put myself first, or even forgo some sand and pebbles to make room for a big rock of my own? I say emphatically, "Yes!"

My friend, Jackie, a single mom whose son has spina bifida once told me, "There is just no way to get it all done, so I have to let some things, the less important things, slip." In these fast-paced times, I believe no one can get it all done and since it is my jar, I get to decide what's more, and less, important.

If I worry about the big rocks, the rest will either fit, or I can simply let it slip. No more running out of time for what really matters.

I untangled from Sydney and pulled back to look at her reddened eyes. Smoothing her hair back from her face, I finally saw her; my daughter. Such a precious girl. How could anything be more important?

"Do you want to watch a movie?" I asked.

She looked crestfallen as if I were shoving her off again in favor of my computer.

When I added, "With me?" a smile lit up her face and we headed to the couch.