The Other Side

When Henry was little more than a week old, I noticed each of his eyes had a single white spot right in the middle. The spots weren’t exactly symmetrical but there was one in each eye. A pair.

Henry had begun to open his eyes for longer periods of time, focusing on what he could in the world around him. I noticed the white spots while I was feeding him and we were gazing lovingly, exhaustedly into each other’s eyes. Him, undoubtedly wondering who this lady was that wouldn’t stop crying and me, wondering if I would ever sleep again ever in my whole entire life.

I wasn’t concerned because I was way too tired to be anything but tired but I do remember getting up from the chair we were sitting in and peering in the bathroom mirror to see if I, too, had white spots in the center of my eyes. My sleep-deprived mind had thought maybe it was a structural thing in the eye that I had simply forgotten we all had? But, no, I did not have white spots in my eyes.

Henry’s pediatrician at the time was part of a very busy group practice near our home. When I took Henry for his two-week checkup, the scheduling backup at the office meant we were seeing a doctor we had not seen prior. He was a founding physician of the practice and his son worked there as well. He was older and kind and patient and when, almost as an afterthought, I mentioned the white spots in Henry’s eyes and did he think those were supposed to be there, he took a closer look and casually exclaimed, “Oh, I see those, yes. He has cataracts.”

We never saw that doctor in the practice again and I’m not exactly sure why. I remember reading about his passing a short time later and thinking that the randomness of our appointment with him was one of the more fortuitous events in our lives because he referred us to the pediatric ophthalmologist that would eventually save Henry’s vision.


Ten days after that newborn checkup, Bob and I took a wee baby Henry to Children’s National Medical Center to have his cataracts officially diagnosed. I remember Henry nestled in a bucket car seat we had borrowed from friends. I remember meeting his ophthalmologist for the first time – a man that would feature so prominently in our lives for more than a decade. I remember wishing I had written down more of what the doctor had said. I remember being a little scared and mostly being really, really sad.

And, I remember exactly what Henry was wearing that day – a onesie and matching pants given to us from a neighbor. The little shirt was covered with knights slaying dragons.

For the next three years, we continued with regular, frequent appointments with Henry’s ophthalmologist, tracking the progression of the cataracts and trying our best to determine what, exactly, Henry could see. Wrestling a toddler through an hours-long ophthalmology appointment is just as fun as it sounds. There’s the waiting room wait, followed by blatant coercion to cooperate in the exam room, then the application of stinging eye drops, followed by more waiting, and finally wrapping up with yet another lengthy exam. It was challenging and difficult. Henry once accidentally punched the nurse administering the eye drops. I never seemed to bring enough of the good snacks or the right toys. But, we eventually got into a routine and each appointment was a little easier than the last. Plus, the waiting room played non-stop Disney Junior.

Shortly after Charlie was born, in the summer of 2009, one of these routine appointments turned up the presence of secondary cataracts in both of Henry’s eyes. His congenital cataracts had changed as he had grown and the situation was more pressing and his condition more serious. If Henry’s clouded natural lenses weren’t replaced, his vision would be further compromised. And, compromised vision in a young child means that the critical connection between his eyes and his developing brain would also be compromised.

Surgery was inevitable and, following some intensive testing to rule out genetic disorders commonly associated with congenital cataracts, Henry was scheduled for surgery on the first eye – his left – the following May, when he was four years old.


My memories of the nine months between Henry’s diagnosis of secondary cataracts and his first eye surgery are cloudy. I’m convinced it’s a trick my mind plays to safeguard my heart from how absolutely overwhelming life was at the time. We had just completed a whole-house renovation, I had shifted from full-time to part-time work, Charlie had surgery to repair a birth defect that included a rather complicated convalescence, and we were in the beginning stages of Bob’s heart health journey. In one particularly unimaginable day, I checked Bob out of the cardiology wing of our hospital after an overnight stay for a heart procedure and we walked – very slowly – to the children’s wing of that same hospital so Charlie could have an emergency ultrasound due to a post-surgery complication. I have no idea what the receptionist in the children’s imaging center must have thought at the sight of us. Charlie, agitated in the stroller, Bob wearily slumped in his chair, hospital bands still affixed around his wrist. Me, staring blankly ahead, willing all of this to just be over, please be over.

But, by May of 2010, we were ready to fix Henry’s eyesight. We had seen some very dark days and, like seasoned warriors, we were ready for the new battle ahead.

However, Henry’s first surgery did not go as planned. Cataract surgery in young children can be difficult since the eye is so malleable at that age. It took his doctor three attempts to get Henry’s new artificial lens to sit in Henry’s eye correctly. It was a long and worrisome surgery followed by a long and difficult recovery.

The three biggest challenges in recovery being to prevent Henry from touching or rubbing the eye, to encourage Henry to open and use the eye, and to administer steroid drops directly into the eye which is akin to wrestling a grizzly bear to the ground but being, you know, gentle about it. I remember having to pin Henry to the carpet, his arms restrained under my knees, my left hand gingerly opening his delicate, damaged eye, my right administering the drops while he screamed and thrashed. We’ve both recovered from this trauma but just barely, if I’m being honest.


Two months later, we did it all over again with his right eye.

Weeks after that second surgery, a suture from the first surgery popped, a rare complication necessitating an under-anesthesia repair. I discovered the popped suture BECAUSE YOU COULD SEE IT STICKING OUT OF HIS EYEBALL. Let that sink in for a minute.

Three months after that suture repair, another suture in the OTHER eye popped, requiring ANOTHER under-anesthesia repair. Henry’s doctor was amazed. We weren’t. We were just really tired.

At this point, Bob and I were getting pretty good at the dividing and conquering part of parenthood. One of us would remain with Charlie while the other was with Henry. Since the suture repairs were pretty quick, I was taking Henry to these procedures solo. Before I even had time to properly organize my purse, he would be out and in recovery. We had the whole process of out-patient children’s surgery down pat which, frankly, is a skill you never expect to acquire.

Several months later, the development of a membrane in Henry’s eye – kind of like scar tissue – meant another round of invasive surgery. It was impacting his vision and had to be cleared out.

A year and a half later, Henry had the same surgery on the other eye.


The intervening years since Henry’s last surgery in 2012 have been filled with eye patches and regular checkups and the occasional emergency appointment and lots of new glasses and the inevitable replacement of those glasses when they’re broken by a renegade sibling and also some long lectures on caring for one’s glasses and a bit of wondering when Henry will be old enough to manage contacts.

For the most part though, the past few years have been a lot less stressful for Henry than the few that came before. I hope the painful memories recede for him and the better ones rise to the top.

But, my memories haven’t faded. I remember how difficult things were. I remember how hard it all was. How scared we were. I remember bracing myself at every appointment for bad news. How often there was bad news. But, I also remember how good I got at caring for Henry. How his condition made me more confident as a mother. I asked questions and sought solutions. I advocated for him. I remember how Bob and I worked so well together. I remember family that would drive long distances to help us. Friends that worked at the hospital and would distract us on surgery days. Neighbors that would ply Henry with gifts in an effort to encourage him to open his eyes.

All of these memories melt together in my mind, a mix of worry and exultation, of sadness and relief, of thankfulness and exhaustion. They’re tucked away but they’re still there. Right below the surface.


We haven’t had an appointment with bad news in more than five years now and so, earlier this month, Henry was officially discharged from the care of his pediatric ophthalmologist. Very nonchalantly, after almost twelve years to the day of treating Henry, his doctor announced that he didn’t need to anymore. It took me by surprise. It makes sense though. Henry won’t need additional surgery until his late teens. It seems a prudent time to find a local ophthalmologist that can see him through from here. But, still, the finality of it all, the finality of our journey took my breath away. I refrained from making things awkward by crying or hugging his doctor but I did thank him profusely for his diligence. Though, Henry and I both hugged the nurse on our way out. He apologized, again, for accidentally punching her that one time.

For so long, I’ve wanted to write about our experience. To record the history of our journey, reflect on the tremendous frustrations, dwell in the depth of our gratitude. I never did. I never could. I realize now that was because I couldn’t think about it, couldn’t focus on it too much when we were in it. When you’re in it, the journey is about something else entirely. The rest of it, the reflection, comes when you’re on the other side.


That’s a Wrap

And, just like that, another school year has come to a close.


That’s a rising second grader on the left, a rising fifth grader on the right and a never-misses-a-good-party Pre-K’er in the middle (at least she’s consistent).

These last six weeks of school were especially busy. There were just SO MANY details to keep track of. It seemed like a race to fit in as many activities and outings and meetings before the big summer break. Here, I made you a handy chart that summarizes what it all looked like:

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 7.23.07 AM

This chart fails to show my cookie consumption and how it closely follows the trajectory of blue and red lines.

I am relieved that we are on the other side of school and that our schedules will be, well, less scheduled for the summer months.


Not shown: last day of school coonskin cap.

Look, I know it’s in poor taste to brag but take a seat, because I’m going to brag about Henry for a minute. As part of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) for fourth grade students, Henry took part in a “Race to the Governor’s House,” a nine-week intensive study of Virginia state history. Each week, Henry would study a new set of flash cards covering topics ranging from geography to trade to persons of historical significance. Then, he would take a test on those topics. His performance was pitted against the performance of his classmates in the race.

The competition amongst the fourth graders was intense, this we knew. Henry would update us weekly on his position in the race and explained that the whole thing was coming down to him and two other friends. When we headed to the school for the special Race to the Governor’s House awards ceremony, we were a little anxious since we knew how excited he was for the final results. When Henry took home first place, we were elated.

Now, here’s where I admit that, overall, Bob and I were pretty hands-off with this race stuff. We tend to focus a lot of our homework completion laser eyes on Charlie so Henry runs mostly on auto-pilot. I signed the slip giving Henry permission to participate in the race (probably because that was all the way back in March), I saw the flash cards that Henry would bring home and I occasionally quizzed him on the topics covered. But, we really didn’t realize just how hard he was studying for this or just how diligent he was in taking the tests. Because, to our complete surprise, Henry won the Race to the Governor’s House by correctly answering 31 questions each on 9 separate exams. He answered 279 questions out of 279 questions correctly. His teacher pointed out that they weren’t multiple choice questions, either. Most questions were open-ended where he had to write in the answers from, like, his own brain. He had to really, really know a lot about Virginia history. He aced the whole thing. THE WHOLE THING.

We are so proud of his accomplishment. Henry is, too.


I posit that nerd trophies are WAY better than sports trophies.

We have a lot of fun plans for this summer and I’m enjoying how much easier it is to explore and investigate and travel now that the kids are a bit older. Our adventures are more enjoyable with each passing year.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still settle an innumerable amount of sibling arguments each day, spend a good portion of the time wondering how much screen time is really too much screen time and count down the August days until they return to their classrooms but, until then, you’ll find me lazily sleeping in until 6:30 in the morning. I know, YAY SUMMERTIME!

Spring Break Grab Bag

We were supposed to spend spring break at Legoland in Florida, fulfilling a lifelong dream of Henry’s to vacation with his favorite mini figures. I had booked everything in January, when the infinite possibilities of a brand new year makes one overly optimistic about traveling 950 miles with three children. We were going to surprise the kids, too, in that super fun way where you wake them up and go, “SURPRISE! We’re leaving RIGHT THIS MINUTE for Legoland! In Florida! Now, get dressed, go to the bathroom and let’s spend the next fourteen hours trapped in a car while I yell, SIT ON YOUR HANDS! every fifteen minutes in the general direction of the backseat.”

It was going to be great. So, so great.

However, at some point, Bob and I decided that we didn’t actually WANT to take the kids to Legoland. We didn’t actually WANT to drive all of the way to Florida. The tediousness to enjoyment ratio was out of balance. There just wasn’t anything in it for us. I mean, other than the unadulterated joy and tremendous happiness of our three delightful offspring. And, I’m going to be honest here, sometimes, that’s just not enough incentive.

We canceled our spring break travels and had absolutely zero regrets. Instead, we promised the kids a week full of adventures. I organized some day trips to new and interesting places and planned little excursions and activities I knew they would love to do. All things that were manageable and low commitment and definitely fewer than fourteen hours from our home base.

Stop #1: Library Playdate With Friends

We were supposed to kick off spring break with a trip to the local library in town which my kids find to be a super special treat since I never take them during the school year because they already bring home tons of books every week from their school library which all seem to magically disappear by their due dates and explains why, after a particularly contorted top bunk bed search for a Davy Crockett title, I ended up relegating the library to a summertime/special occasion treat.

However, on library day, they acted like hooligans all morning long and lost their library privileges so we spent the afternoon at a friend’s house where the kids ran and ran and jumped and played and laughed and did not get into trouble for acting like hooligans.

Stop #2: U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

For years, we have driven by the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, without really realizing that it was there. What’s visible from I-81 is a mounted helicopter and a few tanks in what appears to be someone’s backyard. There’s no large sign or marker to indicate that the site is an actual museum. So, when we decided to make a spring break trip to finally find these tanks we’d passed over and over again, I half expected to take a tour of some super eccentric individual’s collection of military surplus parts.

That was not the case. The U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center is actually a Smithsonian affiliate, is housed next to an expansive collection of army archives and is on the same campus as the U.S. Army War College at the historic Carlisle Barracks.

The museum tells the story of the U.S. Army’s involvement in conflicts dating back to The Revolutionary War all of the way through to the present “Global War on Terror.” The inside museum tour does a great job of keeping kids’ interest through interactive displays, mini-movies and lots and lots of guns. The walking tour of the grounds is surprisingly expansive with replicas of everything from Civil War cabins to a German bunker. All open for exploration.

This place was such a treat and the kids had a fantastic time. If you’re local enough, I would put this on your summer to-do list. It’s free (donations accepted!), has an on-site cafe, plenty of bathrooms and lots of room to roam. So, very kid-friendly. In addition, there is a DRIVE-THRU Starbucks right around the corner so you can fuel up for the car ride home.


This GIANT sign obviously not visible from the interstate.

World War I Trench Exhibit

World War I Trench Exhibit

World War II Barrack Tour

World War II Barracks Exhibit

Razor Wire Obstacle Course (I'm thinking of replicating this concept in our backyard.)

Razor Wire Obstacle Course (I’m thinking of replicating this concept in our backyard.)

Stop #3: Target

Because spring break is supposed to be fun for mommy, too. Only, I had three kids with me so it wasn’t fun. At all.


Travels with her own fairy wings.

Stop #4: Bowling with Friends!

I can’t remember if we’ve ever taken all of the kids bowling before. My memory is clogged full of other important information like, which kid doesn’t like ketchup and who’s out of clean underwear. All I know is that group bowling was not a total disaster as I had absolutely expected it to be. It was really fun! The kids were fully engaged the entire time, only one (1) finger (Millie’s) was smashed at the ball return/shoot and I totally beat the kids to emerge as the big winner which was super satisfying.


Stop #5: Swimming

Bob was in charge of the swimming portion of spring break and he reported that no one pooped in the pool so, I think, from all appearances, the activity was a grand success.

Stop #6: Antietam National Battlefield

The final stop of our Spring Break Not Legoland Tour was a day trip to Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. I knew of Antietam from assorted history classes, I just didn’t know what really happened there or that this was located only about 30 minutes from our house.

We’ve toured our fair share of battlefields throughout Virginia and Pennsylvania so the details of each tend to blur together in my mind. However, traveling with Bob and Henry to these places is sort of like traveling with my own little history department. They are both so knowledgeable about the American Civil War and were quick to explain exactly what happened. Almost 23,000 persons were killed or wounded in a single day of fighting at Antietam making it the bloodiest day of battle in American history. And, this particular conflict is seen as a lost opportunity by the Union to end the war early when they did not pursue retreating Confederate forces at day’s end. It’s really tremendous to stand there imagining such a destructive scene.





The battle took place in and around the fields of a few farms in Sharpsburg and the homes still stand today, although one had to be rebuilt after the fighting. While Charlie is most interested in the heavy weaponry used, I really find the little farmhouses to be the most fascinating part of any battlefield tour. Mostly because I simply can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been when a war arrived, quite literally, on your doorstep. There are so many old homes tucked into the nooks and crannies of the mountains around here and I always imagine how scary that would be to see troops emerge over a rise or converge on your front lawn. Something we are unbelievably blessed to have not had to deal with since.


Through the National Park Service’s Every Kid in a Park program, Henry had a paper pass that he presented for admission to Antietam. The staff at Antietam converted that pass to a special card that he can carry as a 4th grader (through August) that grants him free access to national parks and federal recreational lands throughout the country. I think we’re going to be using it as our guiding compass for summer activities. It’s really a neat program and the parks employees were so great to the kids, handing them trading cards and encouraging their interest in where we were and what we were seeing. They are doing such important preservation work and we should give the National Park Service all the money they need until the end of time forever and ever.


So, that’s it! Everything we did (and didn’t) do over spring break 2016. Even though Florida was in no way involved, the kids really did have a ball with Henry declaring it the Best! Spring! Break! Ever!

However, out of an overabundance of caution, if you see our kids, please don’t mention that we had the chance to take them to Legoland and didn’t. We’ll get there. Someday. Maybe. (Probably not.)