Cherishing that Silent Night in the NICU

CHRISTMAS FLOATED AWAY THAT DECEMBER like a snowflake caught in a gust after the birth of our third son, Ray, at Longmont United Hospital.

“Does he look like anyone in the family?” the nurse asked, hopefully.

Minutes later, at about 4 a.m., the nurse practitioner stood at the foot of the bed. And for some reason, I thought she planned to announce the breakfast menu and when the kitchen opened.

Instead, she smiled with a curious compassion.

Something tripped in my brain, and then she asked my husband, David, and me if we knew anything about Down syndrome.

Down syndrome?

None of the non-invasive testing we underwent had prepared me to be “the one” – the one mommy in 54 women statistically likely at age 42 to bear a baby with this diagnosis.

The only thing we knew was that Down syndrome caused intellectual disability. We never knew that about half of the babies born this way also suffer heart defects or that Ray’s first blood draw would reveal another related health complication, a form of leukemia.

I quickly scrolled through my memory bank to put a face on the news.

Only a very faint image of a quiet girl with thin, straight hair helping with my high school’s hot lunch program surfaced.

I’m not exactly sure why I never knew her.

I graduated in 1985 with 80 other students in an Illinois town just 3,900 folks strong. I knew who concocted the best homemade root beer, and that the Dairy Dream on the highway sold it ice-cold in the summer. I knew who played Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Civil War re-enactments during tourist season.

I knew lots of other esoteric aspects of our life together in a 19th century river town once bigger than Chicago and therefore a stump stop for Abraham Lincoln during his presidential bid.

But the only in-focus face of the syndrome I had then in 2009 happened to be the tiny one snuggled into my bosom.

That people outside of the hospital kept baking cookies, going to holiday parties, wrapping presents, writing cards, and stringing lights never occurred to me then for the next four days – even after a nurse pulled a red Santa cap hand-crocheted by a volunteer over Ray’s little noggin.

By Saturday night, I had slept so little and worried so much about my boy’s near-term health and long-term prospects that I shut off the fluorescent lights in our private room – the one with a picture window on the nurses’ station – shortly after the 7 p.m. shift change.

I slumped in the brown Naugahyde La-Z-Boy chair beside his bassinette and wondered about the parents who held vigil there before me. Whenever my cheek pressed against the headrest I smelled the faraway scents of someone else’s hairspray, someone else’s cologne, someone else’s story of a baby in trouble.

Holiday music played quietly beyond our doorway as I dozed and reflected on this birth experience — on how the temperature dropped to 19 degrees below zero that night, on how I never managed to swap my sweater for a gown before our doctor arrived in her Smurf pajamas and slippers to catch the baby.

One push and we met Ray – a brand-new 6 lb., 4 oz. boy all feisty and bawling despite the low muscle tone caused by Down syndrome.

The ruckus echoes in heaven and earth that life goes on!

As I sat in the dark that message finally found me when a song on the radio popped the bubble around my boy and me.

“I Need a Silent Night” by Amy Grant put a new twist on two evergreen carols:

I need a silent night, a holy night

To hear an angel voice through the chaos and the noise.

I need a midnight clear, a little peace right here,

To end this crazy day with a silent night…

When I took those words to heart, Christmas spun into the room like the snowflake that blew away that first day at LUH.

I noticed the Holy Spirit bending and tending to me as I did the same for my baby, and I sensed the prayers of friends and family freeing me to put thoughts about the phantom child – the Ray with 46 chromosomes, not 47 – to rest.

How marvelous the gift worth cherishing year after year.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at p.mellskog@gmail.com or 303-746-0942.

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Earthy ER visit first gift of Christmas

AS RAY AND I WAITED FOR the doctor in the emergency department my boy swiped a hot pink Band-Aid and promptly dropped trou to stick it on his private part.

For several days our first grader with some special needs had been grabbing that area and complaining with his limited speech: “Pee-Nush hurt.”

Did he have a bladder infection? Had he been molested?

I dialed the on-call doctor at Longmont Clinic Friday afternoon. Her nurse screened Ray’s symptoms for anything serious. Then, she advised us to make an appointment Monday with our family pediatrician, Dr. Fan, who faithfully and cheerfully has ridden a medical roller coaster beside Ray since his birth.

However, before we hung up, the nurse reminded us to call Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora if his discomfort mounted.

By Saturday night I wondered what number Ray would say if he could in terms of his pain on the pain scale — 1 being no pain and 10 being unbearable pain.

He kept standing up and sitting down in his bubble bath, a boy antsy with worry and likely a 6 or 7 on the pain scale.

When we called, the nurse told us it could be an inguinal hernia around the testicles, which can become very serious, she said.

Off we went, then — Ray and I — through the night with his hair still damp from the bath.

So, imagine our relief when two emergency department doctors there palpated between his bottom and lower rib cage for the suspected hernia and instead reported constipation with referred pain in the pelvic floor.

That Ray still went No. 2 in the bathroom during this bout had thrown the oncall doctor off the trail in diagnosing constipation without benefit of an exam, they explained. Then, they prescribed a drug store cure — an enema that in the emergency department cost $250 after insurance paid for the lion’s share of our visit.

“We can just feel it in his belly,” one of the doctors explained before disappearing to marshal nurses for the dirty work.

Two soon arrived at the bedside to administer the enema.

The younger man got Ray to smile by lifting his classic ugly Christmas sweatshirt — a bright green sweatshirt with long-tailed mice peeking out Advent Calendar doors — to reveal a baby blue t-shirt featuring Olaf, the discombobulated snowman made famous in the movie “Frozen” for his faithful friendship and goofy smile.

“Can I help at all?” I said as these nice guys rounded the bed.

“Yep,” the older nurse said. “Grab a pair of those purple gloves and when I finish with this saline solution, I want you to hold his butt cheeks closed for 10 minutes.”

Well, that sounded easy enough.

So, I agreed to that and to bringing him in a fireman’s carry to the toilet five feet from the bed when the enema took effect.

But within 2 minutes, three ping pong ball-sized unmentionables the texture of pumice came shooting out with a tidal wave of the solution.

All of sudden, Ray’s body went from zero to 100, went from being dry to being slimier than a salamander in murky water. And I scooped him up in order to make it to the toilet just in time for all the rest.

What followed for the next 8 minutes can only be described as the closest thing a male can experience to understand what women experience in childbirth.

We cleaned up afterward, and I wrapped Ray in a snowy white towel. Then, I covered the rest of him to his ankles with his winter coat and snuggled beside him in the narrow twin bed.

At midnight, as we dozed and watched “Frozen” on the monitor above the bed while waiting to be discharged, I got my first chance to reflect on our emergency department story that night.

Many hands at the hospital helped us deal with our unpleasant problem, and they did it with kindness and some humor — care not covered by insurance.

Odd, but true, that I consider their support in an earthy situation the very first gift of Christmas 2016.

During this holiday season, when so many of us focus on gifts made in factories, our experience in the ER inspires me to remember gifts made in the heart and shared with those of us caught in humbling circumstances.

And that feels good all around.

When our boy of few words flushed the toilet for the third and final time, he waived his hands and hollered: “All done! All done! All better!”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at p.mellskog@gmail.com or 303-746-0942.

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“Turkey Through a Straw” No Deal Breaker

For whatever reason, our family didn't take any photos of the many Thanksgivings that we spent at Fairhaven, the retirement home in Rockford, Ill., where my Grandma Alida G. Mellskog lived from 1973 until her death in 1993. However, this photo — one shot during a Christmas gathering in the early 1970s at her home in Evanston, Ill. — shows her at my side to play with my brother and my cousins. (Pam Mellskog / For the Times-Call)

For whatever reason, our family didn’t take any photos of the many Thanksgivings that we spent at Fairhaven, the retirement home in Rockford, Ill., where my Grandma Alida G. Mellskog lived from 1973 until her death in 1993. However, this photo — one shot during a Christmas gathering in the early 1970s at her home in Evanston, Ill. — shows her at my side playing with my cousins, my brother, and me.   (Pam Mellskog / For the Times-Call)

FOR ALL THE GOODWILL THAT surrounds the Thanksgiving feast in America, my family came to describe our experience year after year in the 1970s and 1980s with one phrase that makes us sound like a bunch of ingrates.

We dubbed Thanksgiving at Grandma Mellskog’s place “turkey through a straw.”

She was a widow by then and lived alone at a retirement home in Rockford, Ill., with a smaller nursing home wing.

But this place never smelled like Pine-Sol.

The pocket lobbies off the curving hallways included chandeliers and wing-back chairs on blue carpeted floors — all of it somehow ever resistant to dust and wear spots.

No wonder the owners named it Fairhaven.

The home also lived up to its name by feeling like Florida in late November despite the Carter administration’s energy crisis measures that called for lowering the thermostat, not cranking it.

Yet, for all this lovely senior living, the Thanksgiving spread served in the family-style dining room tasted mushy every time. This traditional meal already abounds in soft foods — from the candied yams to the cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. At Fairhaven, the fixings — including the turkey — seemed mushier still.

For this reason, the “turkey through a straw” label stuck and brought a welcome undercurrent of levity to our gathering every year with Grandma and, sometimes, with my aunt, uncle, and cousins who met us there in the middle from the other side of the state.

What matters then and now is that we sincerely appreciated her invitation to treat us to a nice dinner at the retirement home when she no longer managed her own kitchen. We wouldn’t drive 86 miles through often crummy northern Illinois winter weather for the food — even if it were a gourmet meal.

One year, just for a change, we must have put subtle pressure on Grandma Mellskog — we just called her “Nanny” —  who lived at Fairhaven for two decades until her death at 95.

That Thanksgiving, if memory serves, she took us out to a nearly empty restaurant with a buffet. Honestly, the food tasted only marginally more textured and flavored, and the atmosphere was less cozy by a long shot.

So, back to Fairhaven we marched for forthcoming Thanksgiving feasts.

I use just about every pot and pan I own these days to unveil an elaborate annual Thanksgiving dinner at home here in Colorado or at my parents’ place in Illinois.

My kitchen turns into a hot mess of lots of things bubbling or baking with two or three timers ticking away the minutes to completion.

One year, though, I misread a recipe and used evaporated milk, not sweetened condensed milk, to make the pumpkin pies.

The crust turned out golden and picture perfect. Nothing about the filling looked suspicious.

But no amount of whipped cream could cover my mistake.

Though the pumpkin pies tasted like flavorless babyfood, everyone at our Thanksgiving table started eating it and kept eating it until I sat down to eat it and announced that it — whatever it was — was inedible.

Something had gone dreadfully, awfully wrong.

Pairs of eyeballs all around the long table rotated my direction at the same moment then, and all of us set down our dessert forks with relief so we could laugh and laugh. Thankfully, that handily broke the Emperor’s New Clothes-like tension at the table.

Both of these stories illustrate something meaningful to me as we close in on Thanksgiving 2016.

For as much as some of us fuss over the feast — and I am happily guilty as sin on this point as a diehard foodie — fussing over family and friends is far more important.

The first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621 celebrated harvest bounty, surely.

But who came to dinner made that gathering an enduring national holiday.

The Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians — groups as different as Republicans and Democrats, post election — made it happen.

If they can do it, so can all of us with a voting record at odds with our relatives — especially if we find a way to bring our sense of humor to the table instead of indignation or smugness.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Pam Mellskog can be reached at p.mellskog@gmail.com or at 303-746-0942. 

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Down-to-Earth in Brave New World

Our sons tried on 3-D glasses with the Descalzo family to watch the IMAX film, "A Beautiful Planet," at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science on Sept. 25, 2016.

Our sons tried on 3-D glasses with the Descalzo family to watch the IMAX film, “A Beautiful Planet,” at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science on Sept. 25, 2016.

FOR ALL THE VISUAL FASCINATION 3-D glasses bring to any IMAX show, the “Let ‘Em In” snippet from the 1976 Wings’ hit in “A Beautiful Planet” rings in my ears as we face this brave new world of underdog U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.

Sure, Canon cameras likely worth way more than the combined value of my house, car, and life insurance captures thrilling perspectives in the film from the International Space Station.

Ten of us, ages 4 to 49, cozied into our seats earlier this fall at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s theater to peer this way at Earth’s natural features by day, such as the boot of Italy, and by night at the man-made bright spots of world-class cities.

It tickled us to watch the three Americans working and living at the Space Station for six months floating as they cut each other’s hair, sucking espresso from a pouch, and stuffing one another — with Jack-in-the-box difficulty due to zero gravity — into their cumbersome white space suits.

But when their mission wound down, the recording by Wings — a band born famous, thanks to band co-founder and former Beatle, Paul McCartney — drifted into the theater with all the fidelity of the 12-track digital surround sound system:

Someone’s knockin’ at the door

Somebody’s ringin’ the bell

Someone’s knockin’ at the door

Somebody’s ringin’ the bell

Do me a favor

Open the door and let ’em in …

For a few moments, I stopped devouring the visual feast beaming into my wonky 3-D glasses to tune into this unassuming music about answering the door — about listening to knocks and doorbells and answering.

When the American astronauts opened the Space Station’s hatch, elite scientists from former arch enemy countries drifted toward them like helium balloons bumbling along the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade route in New York City.

Slowly, but surely, these astronauts with the best seats on Earth caught one another for an airy hug, for a light pat on the back.

The joy the American expatriates in space felt at this connection with other nationals after six months of seclusion cannot be measured, only savored.

With this political season so peppered with talk of walls and locks, the song around this homecoming in space seemed, well, so refreshingly warm and down to Earth.

I can’t do too much about barriers built or maintained by governments through checkpoints or red tape.

But I can listen for someone at the door during the aftermath of this cold-blooded election.

I can listen for you, and you can listen for me.

So it is with the Descalzos, the friends beside us that afternoon to view the IMAX film with our kids — each couple parenting a young son with intellectual disability related to Down syndrome.

Our friendship reflects ordinary solidarity around an extraordinary challenge — something we Americans living with gravity need more than ever after Election Day 2016.

My late Grandpa Nelson, an undertaker with a famous sense of humor and a mostly closeted generosity, once kept all sorts of kitchey plaques in his den.

One read: “My cow is dead, so I don’t need your bull.”

Another declared: “Relatives and fish both stink after three days.”

But I printed out the words of my favorite one to hang on my fridge because it reminds me — especially now — to come to the door, to open it, and to connect somehow.

That plaque stated: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at p.mellskog@gmail.com or at 303-746-0942.

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Lost-and-Found at Rocky Mountain National Park

Tammy Zarn, an old college roommate of mine visiting from Wisconsin, catches her breath hiking up the switchbacks with us to Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Tammy Zarn, an old college roommate of mine visiting from Wisconsin, catches her breath hiking up the switchbacks with us to Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

WIND OFF THE NEARBY CONTINENTAL Divide by now has erased the footprints our group stamped around Rocky Mountain National Park searching for my lost boy at sunset last Sunday.

But the scramble to find Andy, 8, as we did, haunts me still.

Parents push the panic button when a child goes missing somewhere between frozen food and canned goods aisles at King Soopers.

Imagine losing track of a kid at dusk around an alpine lake that sits at a 9,450-foot elevation in a national park on Oct. 30.

Looking back, I see how this happened.

I figured that my middle son would be safe on the switchbacks up from the Bierstadt Lake parking lot as he hiked between the lead adult and me bringing up the rear with my youngest son, Ray, 6.

Carl, 10, gives little brother Ray, 6, a hug as our group started up the switchbacks to Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Carl, 10, gives little brother Ray, 6, a hug as our group started up the switchbacks to Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Many times that afternoon I watched Andy hiking above me on the terraced trail — a perspective akin to watching shoppers on escalators zigzagging to higher floors in mega malls.

Andy  circled back to me along the way before pushing on and somewhere going rogue.

When our party regrouped above to hike together to Bear Lake, we shouted for him and only wind whispering through the pines answered.

A very deep and utterly unfamiliar fear gripped me then.

I dropped to my knees to pray, and then we three adults quickly carried out a rag tag search and rescue mission.

Tammy Zarn, my old college roommate visiting from Wisconsin, and Ray stayed at the switchbacks to catch Andy if he returned.

Her nephew, Reed Larson, a soldier stationed at the Fort Carson Army base near Colorado Springs — sprinted around Bear Lake twice.

My oldest son, Carl, 10, and I took left turns at trail forks to veer away from the lake before doubling back to the shore. Every few minutes we cupped our hands to shout, “Aaaaaaaaaaaandeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!”

When we met three college girls, they told us they passed him — a blond boy wearing a red Trout Lake Camp sweatshirt — on the bridge 30 minutes earlier.

“Why didn’t you grab him?” I wondered aloud.

Honestly, though, I don’t think they viewed him as lost. He never asked for help and didn’t seem distressed.

It was about 5:15 p.m. and there — by some miracle — I could call my husband, David, on my cell phone. He called the Estes Park police who dispatched a RMNP ranger.

Meanwhile, Carl and I dashed along the path strewn with rocks and twisted tree roots to overtake Andy.

But he was long gone…

Carl hikes past Bear Lake.

Carl hikes past Bear Lake.

With the inky slime of fear getting in my eyes, I knew we needed to focus on faith instead to stay sharp, swift, and big hearted.

Faith inflates.

Fear deflates.

The most important fork for us that day was not on the trail, but in the soul.

Carl prayed aloud with his fingers laced as we hustled along.

I lifted my hands and breathlessly sang songs to God through those woods and, like Carl beside me, I prayed aloud — in a froggy voice told God all about how I let the chain of custody break. Told him all about my fault.

My faults.

And I asked him to hear my broken heart and to please wrap his lovin’ arms around Andy until we found him.

When a 402 area code call buzzed my phone, I answered, and a smallish faraway voice filled my ear.

“Hi, Mom…” Andy began.

He had crossed paths with a couple from Nebraska, and Andy remembered the ten numbers I have taught him since his preschool days.

How many times have I repeated another preschool-era guideline to myself and my kids — “We are Jell-O, not jellybeans” — whenever we cross streets or shop at Costco or line the holiday parade route in Longmont?

Reed soon caught up to Andy and the couple, and Reed used his tiny cell phone flashlight as they emerged from the woods like miners from a coal mine at quitting time.

At home, Andy scarfed chili by then overcooked in the Crock-Pot. He took a hot shower, and David and I tucked him into his bunk bed above Ray.

Andy’s orange kitty cat, the one he named Bow and Arrow when he was 4, hopped on the denim bedspread to curl up there at his feet as they drifted off to sleep.

Thanksgiving is still weeks away.

But I am ready to celebrate it with feasting today because of what I learned at Bear Lake about mistakes and regrets, about fear and faith, about being lost and found.

And about help — seen and unseen.

Some footprints never leave tracks.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at p.mellskog@gmail.com or 303-746-0942.

Andy, 8, plays with brother, Carl, at the Alluvial Fan in Rocky Mountain National Park before hiking up to Bear Lake.

Andy, 8, plays with brother, Carl, at the Alluvial Fan in Rocky Mountain National Park before hiking up to Bear Lake.

 

 

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The Bread-Making Method of Bringing Up Kids

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AT   OUR HOUSE WE ONCE called the dinner hour The Witching Hour — a time so bedeviled that my husband often took a deep breath before opening the backdoor by the kitchen after a long day at the office.

This hour gets easier and easier as our three grade school-age sons grow up.

But when a baby and two preschoolers lived under this roof with us, daddy would stroll in at 5:30 and forget to take off his backpack as I squawked over my shoulder while stirring bubbling soup.

I needed him first to change a diaper, then to wipe a nose, and along the way to mop up spilled applesauce, spaghetti sauce, milk, and all the other gross stuff fermenting on the table and tile floor.

“Why are you so grouchy?” he would say.  

At this point I wanted to toss my apron in the air and holler: “WHY ARE YOU SO DENSE?”

How ironic, then, that I got therapy at the stove instead of away from it.

There, as I practiced cooking and baking during quieter hours, I began to see something beyond food in the pans.

The rims of my black cast iron skillets transformed to portals into the meaning of all things.

And no, I was not smoking dope here in Colorado when this happened.

I was thinking more about cooking methods that make sense in the moment and applying them to parenting.

No brilliance here, really. Just connecting more dots.

For instance, I know something simple, but true, about cooking oil.

Sizzling oil tells me it needs to get busy to get better. It needs a dollop of pancake batter or a handful of chopped onions to keep the fire alarm from sounding off and to do its part in getting dinner on the table and into hungry tummies.

So it goes with my sometimes hyper boys.

But the best model is the bread-making method of bringing up kids.

Of all the points of this process to ponder, the first one to mention must be “microclimate.”

I may make great bread here in Erie at about a hundred feet shy of mile high.

But the same recipe might frustrate someone baking at an even slightly different elevation or humidity.

The trick is recognizing the impact of microclimates on bread and on family life and tinkering for quality improvements.

To do this without wasting ingredients, I read information published by the Colorado State University Extension office on how to make high-altitude adjustments to recipes written and tested at sea level.

But this, like so many parenting books, is just a guide.

Success comes from understanding the proven chemistry of bread making, particularly at altitude, and then practicing bread making enough in your own microclimate to develop the touch, the art part.

These days, I know how to knead dough enough for it to become elastic, but not tough.

I also know that if I leave it alone too long, it will rise into a beautiful, air pocket-filled bread with a high dome only to collapse with a crater in the center.

Lastly, I can hurry along rise time in yeast breads by placing loaves in toasty places — say, an 80-degree oven with a cake pan of boiling water on the lower rack.

But slow rising loaves develop more stable structure than the quick risers.

Ultimately, all this practice may convert my breadmaking and perhaps my parenting into something closer to perfect.

But who needs perfection when the whole house smells heavenly –even during The Witching Hour — before the bread is fully baked.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at p.mellskog@gmail.com or at 303-746-0942.

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Patty’s Porch Light Shines on Over America

Patty Wetterling is consoled by son Trevor during a news conference after a hearing for Danny Heinrich on Sept. 6 in Minneapolis. Heinrich confessed to abducting and killing 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling nearly 27 years ago, recounting a crime that long haunted the state with details that included Jacob asking right after he was taken: "What did I do wrong?" (Jerry Holt / Star Tribune)

Patty Wetterling is consoled by son Trevor during a news conference after a hearing for Danny Heinrich on Sept. 6 in Minneapolis. Heinrich confessed to abducting and killing 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling nearly 27 years ago, recounting a crime that long haunted the state with details that included Jacob asking right after he was taken: “What did I do wrong?” (Jerry Holt / Star Tribune)

USUALLY, I WRITE STORIES ON our kitchen table — the one so rickety that milk spills from the kids’ cups if you bump it and causes everyone else to eye it with contempt as campfire kindling.

It came from Grandma and Grandpa Mellskog’s home and symbolizes for me the bravery, hope, and hard work they flexed to make it in this country as Swedish immigrants.

It is a “can do” kinda table, and I can’t part with it.

But recent news of a man confessing to crimes carried out against an 11-year-old boy in Minnesota nearly 27 years ago drove me upstairs to write instead where my three boys sleep.

I am sitting with a pillow between my back and the wall by Andy and Ray’s open bedroom window. Nearby, a stuffed Spider-Man slumps in a desk chair, and a white cardboard box holds a jumble of electric train track sections.

How many times did Jacob Wetterling’s mother sit as I am in her boy’s forever empty room?

A masked man abducted her son on Oct. 22, 1989, as he biked home from renting a video at a Tom Thumb convenience store in St. Joseph, Minn., with his younger brother and his best friend.

Images of 200 National Guardsmen vainly combing the fields and woods for Jacob near the family’s rural home about 75 miles northwest of Minneapolis, where I lived at the time, stick with me.

But mostly I remember the boy’s class picture — one of him smiling in a canary yellow cable knit sweater — because he literally became the poster child for all missing children.

As time went by, the Wetterling family through the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center founded in 1990 to promote child safety distributed the poster with that color photo next to an age progression adjusted color image of their boy as a man.

Jacob Wetterling (Associated Press)

Jacob Wetterling (Associated Press)

They also turned on their porch light every night as a symbolic gesture of their hope for his safe homecoming.

“…For us, Jacob was alive until we found him,” Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, told reporters after she and her family attended Danny Heinrich’s Sept. 6 plea hearing.

There, the killer confessed details of his crime in federal court as part of a plea bargain related to his arrest last year on federal child pornography charges.

She now knows that the masked man held a snub-nosed .38 Smith & Wesson Special to abduct Jacob.

She knows her son asked, “What did I do wrong?” as Heinrich, now 53, handcuffed and stuffed him in a car before driving about 30 miles southwest of St. Joseph to molest him near a deserted gravel pit on Hwy. 23 near Paynesville, Minn.  

He shot the boy within about an hour of abducting him and on Sept. 1 led investigators to the grave to prove it as part of the deal that protects him from prosecution in the Wetterling case.

Knowing this caused me to think more deeply about the hope Patty Wetterling first held out at 39 until this month, when she, as a 66-year-old grandmother, learned the truth.

Are all those years of hoping worthless or, worse, foolish to the Wetterlings now?

Well, here is what we know.

We know that it was hope — not fear or dismay or blind loathing — that inspired Patty Wetterling to lobby for The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act.

Enacted in 1994, the federal legislation requires all states to keep a registry of those convicted of sexually violent offenses or offenses against children. States also must verify the addresses of sex offenders annually for at least 10 years. Offenders classified as sexually violent predators must verify their addresses for life.

Patty Wetterling’s porch light shines over America in this way. And though Jacob never again walked through their front door, her message of hope and advocacy on behalf of missing children reached around the world.

Thousands posted photos of their porch lights on Facebook in support of the Wetterlings when the case closed.

Meanwhile, shopkeepers along the main drag in St. Joseph responded with more hope, not less, through sidewalk sandwich board messages.

One read, “If light is in your heart you will always find a way home.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at p.mellskog@gmail.com or at 303-746-0942.

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Love Without Labor

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WHEN RAY’S BEST FRIEND IN first grade came over for a backyard cookout last weekend, she presented a dozen long-stemmed yellow roses from her family and a heart full of wedding plans.

Gracie reminded her mother several times that week to send a wedding invitation to our youngest son, her groom, and to uninvite her dad whenever she felt mad at him.

It’s not like her affections caught Ray, 6, off guard.

Their friendship goes way back to preschool. They eat lunch at the school cafeteria side-by-side every day and act like a couple, even without matching rings.

But Ray, like his father, could not give a rat’s rear end about wedding plans.

Our boy refused even to hold the bouquet with her for a 10-second snapshot and instead called Gracie, also 6, to join him at the hole beside the garage that he and his brothers have been digging all summer.

The dynamic felt so familiar.

My husband hoped I would go four-wheeling with him in the mountains on our wedding day and resented the long to-do list I handed him instead. Sure, he wanted to get married and celebrate that through a religious ceremony and festive reception with friends and family.

Honestly, though, I suspect only his anticipation of the honeymoon kept him from jilting me at the altar given the onslaught of directions about multi-tiered cakes, boutonnieres, and folding programs.

David feels Ray’s pain, even in the context of a play date wedding. So, I know what Gracie is up against here.

It is in the genes.

This precious girl nevertheless is fond of our boy in the most innocent ways. He is quite fond of her, too.

And as I watched them play together, it blessed me so to see Gracie’s love rollout without labor — to see the ease with which this very chatty, vivacious girl on the autism spectrum delights in our son’s company.

That moment bounced me back to Ray’s birthday at Longmont United Hospital in December 2009. In the wee hours immediately following his birth and tentative diagnosis with Down syndrome, I entertained surreal thoughts about the future of this boy with the extra chromosome.

For instance, I wondered if he ever would wear a tuxedo — something silly that I now think symbolized the formality of adult traditions, such as getting married.

Ray cannot talk much yet due to his speech delay. As he ages, other developmental delays will cause him to fall further and further behind his peers academically as they navigate the world in increasingly complex ways.

But six years into our life together, I now know something that Gracie and Ray’s fast friendship exemplifies — that actions do speak louder than words and that our presence, not just our performance dripping with sweat equity, provides the invaluable.

Happy Labor Day!

Pam Mellskog can be reached at p.mellskog@gmail.com or at 303-746-0942.

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The Summer Catching His Breath Became Cool   

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DURING A LEISURELY SUNSET WALK with my son earlier this week, Carl kicked off his red Crocs to sprint what he figured to be 100 meters barefooted.

Then, just before the sidewalk’s straightaway curved east, he lifted his arms and dropped his speed to finish the dash with a victor’s smile.

As he huffed and puffed to catch his breath, I caught up to him thankful for the fairy dust the Olympians in Rio scattered to the ends of the Earth.

Because of them and the hours was as a family spent on the couch watching their televised competitions, Carl, 10, now appreciates the concept of sweat equity a bit more tangibly.

This is the summer that catching his breath — just like the elite athletes in oxygen debt — became cool.

Organizers in the sports world want to tap that enthusiasm by connecting kids, some of whom could become future Olympians, to local training centers via www.nbcolympics.com/goldmap.

The very best in the world began this way. They found their athletic talent and built their skills out of public view as children or youth — even Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, the sprinter who earned his seventh Olympic gold medal running the men’s 100-meter final in 9.81 seconds.

He left the starting block in that race second to last, but kept his head the whole time.

“I just said (to myself), ‘Take your time, and chip away,’” Bolt told reporters afterward.

He got faster by the second, and Carl watched him go, go, go — something ironically more impressive in slow motion because my boy could see the athlete’s tremendous give to that goal.

Now, Carl likes to ape “the Bolt” — a pose the track star does after winning races by pulling his right arm back like an archer and straightening his left arm to point upwards as a stylized lightning bolt.

We mean to call Kemarly,  Carl’s Jamaican friend who attends another school this year, to congratulate him on his countryman’s Olympic successes and swap impressions of the man’s races at Rio.

But for all the spectacular photo finishes and the timers that can slice a second more exquisitely than any of us can measure beyond the blink of an eye, one athlete’s discouragement made just as much of an impression on me.

Allyson Felix of Team USA won a silver medal in the women’s 400-meter race after Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas dived across the finish line for the gold medal.

Only 0.07 seconds separated them.

Felix spent the next 20 minutes catching her breath and processing the controversial defeat by lying on the track on her back with an elbow slung over her forehead.

As they waited to interview her, NBC commentators shared more background about Felix — the world champion of that race and the most decorated U.S. female track athlete of all time with seven Olympic medals then, four of them gold.

When the disheartened athlete rose from the track to talk with the interviewer, she delivered lines I hold tightly in spite of her disappointment:

“It was tough,” she said. “I was trying to dig deep and find another gear.”

The fluke at the finish line — Miller’s dive that caused her chest to cross the line first — make it seem like Felix failed to find that gear.

In reality, the strategy served her so well.

She surged on the final stretch and caught Miller neck-and-neck, and that success translates to every hard race the rest of us face.

At work or school. In marriages and families. In the midst of addiction recovery or a jail sentence. After a cancer or HIV diagnosis.

That’s why we need the Olympics every four years, not only to show kids like Carl and adults like me the will to win, but to show us the will to try.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at p.mellskog@gmail.com or at 303-746-0942.

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Boy mystery No. 547: Why dig holes to China?

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BEFORE ANYONE CALLS SOCIAL SERVICES, I need to explain why my youngest son upon occasion stands in a deep hole in our backyard with an upturned tomato cage over his head.
Please note that Ray, 6, views the wire structure above him as some sort of spaceship nose capsule, not as cruel entrapment. He clearly feels as proud of his spot as an astronaut must feel before blasting off to the moon.
We know this because as soon as both of his older brothers — Carl, 10, and Andy, 8 — lean on their shovels during our backyard dig, Ray scrambles with Chinese fire drill haste into the hole. Then, he helps them fit the tomato cage on its rim before squealing as they applaud.
This drill could provide all of us with endless cheap entertainment this summer if the boys stopped digging.
Instead, they dig every day, and their buddies hop in the hole to help out during visits.
Their friend, Jack — the boy who lives on the other side of the fence from the hole — monitors progress from his little sister’s room when he is grounded or supposed to be spending an hour of quiet time in his room.
We wonder sometimes if he worries about all three of them popping up in his yard, resurfacing with Alcatraz-level jailbreak euphoria.
Jack would not want to miss this — especially since he, too, has spent time digging in the hole.
If you are a boy between the ages of about 3 and 12, you understand the intrigue of this pastime in ways that a mother approaching 50 cannot.
Until this summer, I considered the hole between our garage and the fence a fad — something my husband and I would backfill during our abundance of spare time.
Seriously, though, how could something so boring and labor intensive hold a boy’s interest for so long?
Now that I have read aloud to my kids 26 of the 50 chapters in Louis Sachar’s book, “Holes” (Frances Foster books), the question seems even more reasonable.
The fictitious story features a boy convicted of shoe theft and sent for 18 months to Camp Green Lake — a dried-up Texas lake where each boy does hard time by digging a hole 5-feet wide by 5-feet deep every day in blazing heat.
Our boys launched their voluntary backyard hole dig months before we opened the book, a John Newbery Medal winner.
So, the story has failed so far to stigmatize digging holes, especially after the main character unearthed a monogrammed gold lipstick tube the warden treasured for reasons yet unknown.
The other homespun fun my sons pursue makes sense to me.
Most recently, that list includes filling the tub to put the plastic Navy destroyer out to sea; burying each other on hot days with wet sand in the sandbox; tying twine ropes on the banister to climb upstairs, Indiana Jones’ style; and sleeping in their Halloween costumes.
What a relief that my husband, David, understands something more about them. The kids recently ratted him out — told me that he dug a starter hole for each of them, though they quickly pooled resources to make more spectacular progress on one.
These days, that hole could swallow both Ray and the tomato cage without a trace.
But as it gets deeper and wider, the boys have given me more hints in understanding their hole digging habit, more hints in understanding the importance –even to young boys — of flexing their muscles to dig to China or some place else.
“One reason that I dig holes is so I can grow up to be a strong man,” Andy said.
Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942.

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