American rites

I noticed too late this morning the sign on the wall that read: ‘no phones, no food or drink.’  I sat back down on the bench at the orthodontist’s office and slid my cell and coffee mug into my purse.  (Uh-huh, my purse is big enough to hold a coffee mug.  A large mug.)

Thankfully, I’d already snapped several pics of kid #2 as he lay in the recliner with braces newly cemented onto his teeth.  The office was so familiar to the senses, bringing back memories from my own middle-school years.  The scary device that stretched the mouth open, making lips dry and crack, the sound of the suction tube pulling saliva from the mouth as my son tried, as I tried decades ago, not to swallow all those strange-tasting chemicals.

I sat at the bench by my son’s feet this morning, aflush with sentimentality as I texted several pics to the family.  Here he was, our youngest, entering the awkward, uncomfortable metal-mouth phase.  No more popcorn or skittles, kettle chips or crunching ice cubes.  He’s pretty lucky, really, as he’s not expected to need braces for long, maybe a year and a half, which is better than what the rest of us in the family had to endure.

His is the first braces case that will be caught on camera, though.  No cell phones when I was a kid, and phones were still pretty dumb back when his older brother got braces.  My strange new smile on Braces Day 1, back in the ‘80’s, wasn’t posted on a blog, like kid#2’s is, right here. shen braces pic

Poor guy.

Yup, it’s an old rite of passage – braces in the teen years. Very American.   Along with a newer rite of passage, parents posting awkward kid pics online, for the whole world to see.

Yet my quiet celebration of our son’s life moving forward was stained today, with sadness and frustration.

As I watch the metal-mouth chapter open for him, a rite of passage that feels oh so middle-school, so middle-class America, I know there are other parents out there who will never see their children make their way to this chapter, let alone through it.

I think of parents who lost children at Sandy Hook.  I expect they would love to be with their kids right now, humored and slapping them on the back as they left the orthodontist’s office with a mouth full of metal.  I am sure they’d love to be posting embarrassing kid pics on social media today, documenting milestones in their children’s lives, witnessing those rites of passage that offer trials and tribulations big and small and influence the future self.

I was fortunate to witness another son’s rite of passage last month, as I was present at move-in day for our older son’s junior year of college.  There he was, wading through college life, enjoying friends and enduring deadlines and facing challenges, all on his own.  It’s a rite of passage young adults journey through, leaving home for a more independent life, for school or a first job.  It’s a time that, hard as it is, many of us look back upon with great fondness. Jac college pic

And it’s a rite of passage for me as a parent, as well, grabbing a latte with the kid before heading to the small-town school and heaving boxes into his dorm room, shaking hands with his roommate’s parents, chuckling together at the stacks of bins and wondering how they would EVER find room to walk, let alone sleep there, touring the campus and basking in the excitement of our son’s unwritten future that could be anything, anything he wanted it to be.

Here was a rite of passage I was able to experience, sending my kid out into the world, something that so many other parents out there would never enjoy.  Like the parents of kids, young adults, lost in Orlando, kids who never had a chance to make it through another year of college.

Braces it the teen years, leaving home in the young adult years, these are such American rites of passage in my mind, things that we, here in America, have experienced for generations.  And now there are new rites of passage.  Some newer rites, like the parent posting embarrassing kid pics online, are generally humorous, even if embarrassing.

And then I fear there are some disturbing new rites of passage taking hold here in America.

Mass shootings have become a regular occurrence, happening all over the country, in places of work and entertainment, in educational institutions for children and adults alike.  I fear that being touched by a mass shooting is becoming too familiar, a new rite of passage in this country.  Will everyone, eventually, know someone who was lost or harmed in a mass shooting?  Will everyone eventually be on the receiving end of the words “thoughts and prayers” from their social media neighbors, due to a mass shooting?  Is this, like the pain of braces and the stress of college, a new element of American life that, dreaded as it is, we have begun to accept a fundamentally American experience?

I was able to join our older son on his move-in day this year only because I was in town to visit my critically ill brother.

I got the first text from family on a Sunday night and I was on a plane that Tuesday morning.  We spent the first few days in or around the ICU of a hospital close to his home, watching him lay unconscious, making sure someone was always present during the doctors’ rounds, until he was transported via ambulance to a bigger hospital, where we spent the next week and a half walking between medical buildings and motels and coffee shops.

Our older son was there with me for much of that time, since he had been working a summer job nearby.  This was his first experience with another rite of passage that is all too human:  gathering with family next to the bed of a sick loved-one.  He slept on grandma’s floor some nights and the motel room couch on others, joined me for morning coffee before heading back to the ICU family waiting area across the street, went to the same diner often enough that they knew what we wanted to drink before we spoke, chatted with everyone in an attempt to prop up spirits as we all sideways-glanced at the vitals listed on the monitor next to my brother’s, his uncle’s bed, cheered when he opened his eyes and said a few words. hospital coffee.jpg

This is the sort of thing we all go through at some point, though none of us hope to, none of us want to.  If I ask everyone I meet whether they’ve kept vigil next to the bed of someone they loved, I suspect many of them would say yes.  It is a rite of passage of humanity, to watch someone you love lay in a hospital, in pain and in need of healing, and our older son had his first adult experience with this last month.  Thankfully, my brother made it through this crisis and is continuing his medical treatment from home.

Right now, there are over five hundred wounded people in the Las Vegas area, many no-doubt still in hospital beds, many with families checking into nearby motels and grabbing early morning coffee before heading to ICU family waiting rooms and taking notes when the docs walk by on rounds.  These people in Vegas are not being treated for complications arising from cancer, though, as my brother was.  Those in Vegas right now, the 500+ still alive and the 59 no longer with us, were all shot by one person sitting in a hotel room high above their heads.  This is not an American rite of passage I wish to continue.  I cannot believe this is a painful ordeal that must be so, that is unavoidable.

This new thing, this mass shooting that has become an every-day tragedy, this is something we must take steps to fix, before it becomes standard rite of passage in our country, before our nation becomes so accustomed to it that we forget to discuss whether it really must be a necessary fact of life in America.

Write your representatives and ask them to start a conversation in congress that is long overdue.  Ask them to look at the facts, that America suffers from gun violence more severely than most other developed nations, that other nations have taken successful steps to change course.


I understand this is a heavy topic.  I started this blog a few years ago to post my light-hearted thoughts occasionally and to announce my story publications, but today I find my heart is too heavy to ignore, and so I must speak however, wherever I can.  I hope you do, too.

Click here to find your representative.

Click here to donate to Gabby Gifford’s and Capt. Mark Kelly’s organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions.

Let’s come together to find a solution to the public health crisis of gun violence in America.  Let’s make life in this America one worth celebrating, with more things like braces and college dorms, and less things like mass shootings.

I’ll end with a pic of kittens, as I often do.  I wake up many mornings to see these guys gazing out the window from their perch of utter safety, eager to see what the new day will show them.  I lay in bed and watch them, and I yearn to feel the same way.  I want everyone, everywhere to feel the same way.

kitten window pic.jpg


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