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  • 'Perpetual Mental Battle'

    Sometimes your children do things that make you swell with pride, with the realization that these humans you’ve known since they were in the womb have become mature, thoughtful and caring adults.

    This is an example of that.

    Emma graduates at the end of April from Point Park, finishing in three years (plus some summer work) with a double major in dance as well as sports and entertainment management. She submitted a concept to PPU's dance club and was chosen to choreograph it, on top of her already full course load.

    The project, which she titled “Perpetual Mental Battle,” was inspired by Emma’s sister Kate, who struggled with bipolar throughout childhood and adolescence. Emma, in her description of the dance, admits that she “never really understood” what Kate goes through and notes the disorder is “often misinterpreted by others in society as well.”

    “I created this work aiming to physicalize the feelings and emotions experienced by someone with bipolar when they are going through a manic- depressive episode,” Emma writes. “It is simply meant to shed light on the internal conflict occurring that others never see, and usually fail to address in an appropriate and healthy way.”

    In developing the dance, Emma talked to Kate frequently to “ensure it was an accurate representation of her personal experiences.”

    “This piece is very timely for Kate's journey as she is finally in a mentally stable place,” Emma writes. “She has a wonderful job working at a preschool and is thriving in other aspects of life. She has become one of my biggest supporters, and I only hope to be able to provide her with the same love and support.”

    Wow. Just wow.

    Thanks to the dancers who did such a lovely job of performing Emma’s piece on Saturday night at PPU, including two (Lauren Michaels and Kyra Smith) who she has known forever from her days at MSA. The other dancers are Mariah Barajas, Hanna Eidson and Sara Ekern.

  • Happy 22nd Birthday, Kate!

    Growing up, my family always had a thing about number patterns, so it was always strange to me that none of my children particularly liked math.

    Since they are "grown ups" now, I'll send off this year's birthday month with a set of numbers for Kate. My second child, born two days after Christmas, is now 22. She was followed in rapid succession by twins born on Dec. 11 (1+1=2) the next year, giving us four (2x2=4) in all.

    Kate, justifiably, would probably look at me and say, "Dad, please stop doing the math. You know it makes my head hurt." And I would look back at her with a smile.

    This is the type of relationship we have, bickering and picking at each other. It hasn't always been in fun or jest, but over the past couple of years, it has evolved into our definition of "us."

    I greatly admire and respect the woman Kate has become. She has taken charge of her life, has a new home with two roommates and a job/career path she loves. What more could any parent want?

    It all adds up to this: We love you, Katharine Alexandra Cook, and are very proud of you! Happy birthday!

  • Congrats to Kate!

    The photo on the left was taken of Kate a few days before she entered kindergarten. Today, our 21-year-old (pictured at Thanksgiving) started the school year as a teacher assistant at the Merritt Academy in Fairfax.

    We are very proud of you, sweetheart, and know the students will benefit from your kindness and loving spirit. They are very lucky, and we are, too!

  • Happy 20th Birthday, Kate!

    Kate last night at her 20th birthday party — she has to work on her actual birthday, which is today — and with her siblings at the Escape Room Live in Alexandria. Plus, as a bonus, a flashback photo to 3-day-old Kate and her mom on the living room couch. (It's still one of my all-time favorites.)

  • Happy 19th to Kate!

    Our oldest daughter. Our last December birthday. Our beautiful Kate is 19 today (December 27), having developed into a woman who combines childlike wonder and increasing adult maturity with a touch of old soul. We love you, sweetheart!

  • Fly Away Home

    I stood in the middle of the apartment kitchen and hugged my oldest daughter, consciously choosing not — for once — to say anything. Jill stood by the front door, exhausted after several mostly sleepless nights, holding back tears.

    Finally, after a couple of minutes, Kate and I separated with a series of mutual “I love yous.” And then Jill and I left her behind, climbing into the rental car for the 900-mile drive back to Virginia.

    Our 18-year-old daughter is out on her own, living in Florida and looking for a job.

    And we are waiting to exhale.

    Feeling emotionally bulletproof? Become a parent. That's when a speck of gunpowder suddenly takes on the size and scope of an atomic bomb.

    — From a Facebook post on August 30

    We’ve known this transition was coming for some time. It’s something we started planning for when Kate was 5 years old and entering kindergarten, although reality did not set in until a few short months ago. Kate struggled mightily during her manic teenage bipolar years and there were times we worried whether she would finish high school.

    She did this past June, completing her senior year with the best grades she’s had since elementary school. That was thanks in part to a year-long family treatment program and her acceptance that getting out of school was her only way to get out of Virginia. She also received high marks from her after-school employer and the people she worked with as a nanny during the summer.

    For the past several years, Kate has talked about heading south to get away from the four seasons that I craved while growing up in Texas. Late fall and winter, when the temperature drops and the days get shorter, has always been an unsettled time.

    During her senior year, Kate’s plans shifted as often as the colors of her hair, with plans to move to Florida, to California, to Texas, or even as far away as St. Thomas. She became so focused on getting out and getting away that things at home were unsettled at best, fractious and unstable at worst.

    Finally, a few weeks ago, she circled back to her first choice and zeroed in on the Tampa Bay area.

    Jill and I are the children of educators. We have worked in and around schools for most of our professional lives. So it feels somewhat strange that at least two of our four kids — Kate and Ben — are taking very non-traditional paths into adulthood, paths that likely won’t involve four-year universities, at least in the near term.

    Given their very different life circumstances and interests, it makes sense. But, as any parent learns during this process, making sense of something doesn’t make it easy to accept.

    Over the past several years, I’ve written about our challenges in parenting a child with a mental illness and how each transition had more than its share of bumps. Jill and I are quick to speak out about the need for awareness and better mental health care in this country, and we cringe every time we see yet another tragedy tied to someone with mental health issues in the headlines.

    We are fortunate that, when things are stable, Kate is a kind, gentle spirit with a sweet soul. We also know that the mental health aspect of bipolar disorder, especially the depressive part, has a narcissistic, ugly and vindictive side. Treatment, when available, can prove helpful, but it has to be consistent and persistent.

    Consistent and persistent are not words you typically use with teenagers, except when they want something. And Kate wanted this so badly that we had to let her go.

    Off to parts unknown. Off to college. Leaving the nests. Getting jobs. Watching them move on. Common threads many of my friends and cohorts are going through now. To sum up in a word: Sigh...

    — From a Facebook post on August 22.

    As moving day approached, Jill and I were alternately terrified and thrilled that Kate was leaving. I realize that’s a “normal” parenting reaction, although things are amplified when the spectre of bipolar lingers just below the surface.

    Jill and Kate took off for Tampa last week, then I followed with her car on the auto train. They spent 48 hours together, working on the small apartment Kate has. It was the longest period they have spent together, just the two of them, in several years.

    I arrived with frayed nerves. The last week had been an exhausting challenge, both from a work standpoint and from a familial one. My camera equipment was stolen from our car two days before Jill and Kate left, taking with it a significant portion of my livelihood and — just as important — a chunk of my soul. Jill agreed that I could replace the equipment even before we knew what the insurance settlement would be, but I still lost two full days of work and even more sleep.

    The three of us worked together, assembling furniture and shopping to get Kate set up. Like many parents whose children are leaving the nests, we spent more than we originally budgeted, but we didn’t care.

    And then we had to leave our daughter behind.

    Yesterday, after the 900-mile drive home, I saw an interview on the Today Show with author Brene Brown, a researcher from the University of Houston (ironically my alma mater) who has written a series of books on vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Her newest book, Rising Strong, was published last week.

    In the interview, Brown described worthiness as the belief that “I am enough. It’s something that takes practice. It’s not an attitude, not a onetime thing. It’s a street fight every day.” She said shame can’t survive if you “douse it with a little empathy.”

    I found myself drawn to what she had to say about vulnerability, because I think in many ways it captures Kate and many of the teens who are making similar transitions now.

    “Vulnerability is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Most of us were raised to mitigate risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is weakness. You wake up in the morning, armor up. You get tough. You suck it up. You push through, soldier on.

    “But that armor is really heavy, and it prevents people from knowing us and seeing us, which is our deepest human yearning, to be known and to be seen and to know love and belonging. So I think we’re afraid of it because it means risk and being hurt.”

    Her description of courage also rang true: “Your will to show up and try and let people know that you care about something when you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. That’s courage.”

    Kate is courageous. I have to give her that. She also is brave, smart, and vulnerable. I hope and pray that she is able to pick herself up when she falls into life’s potholes. I hope and pray she remains brave enough to keep trying.

    That feeling for a parent, any parent, is universal. I just hope and pray we can exhale soon.

  • Kate's "Cups" Solo

    Kate performs a solo at her school's fine arts showcase last night. Using only a plastic glass for percussion, she performed "Cups" from "Pitch Perfect" and did a wonderful job. She also was one of the emcees for the event.

  • Kate's Sweet 16

    Kate's birthday, which falls two days after Christmas, was extra special this year because it was her 16th. Jill, Emma, and Nicholas went out of their way to make it a great day for our oldest daughter, who got a new makeover haircut and went shopping in Tyson's Corner, followed by dinner at the Japanese steakhouse and concluding with a homemade cake in the shape of an artist's palette.

  • Kate and Her Art

    Kate is staying busy these days with her art, working on a series of paintings that she is selling to raise money to go to New Orleans next summer with church. She really has a great deal of talent... Go, Kate!

  • Graduation Day!

    Kate, our oldest daughter, graduated Friday from Mount Vernon High School with her siblings, parents and grandmother in the audience. We also had a small party at home with friends and more family. Simply put, it was a day to celebrate and jump for joy.

    And we got a nice family photo out of the deal, too...

  • Kate's Last Day

    In September 2002, we took our nervous daughter to her first day of kindergarten. Today, thanks to convergence of events that has left our on-the-road family short by a car, I dropped her off for the last school-related event before she graduates from Mount Vernon on Friday.

    There have been times when all of us — Kate included — have wondered silently and aloud whether this journey would reach this point. And, like all kids do as they manage the rocky path of adolescence, she’s had to overcome her share of bumps in the road. But Kate has made it, and her entire family will be on hand to watch her walk across the stage in a white graduation gown in just two days.

    I’m just glad I had a chance to watch her walk into school one last time.

    Love you, Kate!

  • Ms. Personality Contest

    Congratulations to Kate, who finished as first runner-up in the Ms. Personality contest at Mount Vernon High School. Eight students were nominated by their teachers to represent the school. The event featured segments showcasing the contestants' talents and answering questions from the judges. Kate's talent — easily the most original in the contest — was a video showing how she created spraypaint artwork. To see the video, go to

  • Kate's Talent

    Want to watch something cool? Check out this video of Kate showing her artistic talent as she creates a piece using spray paint on canvas, and it's done in just under 5 minutes.

    The video was made for a school project that Kate will be featured in next week. Ben, who is home this week on a "Newsies" break, resurrected some recently dormant video skills for the project.

    Great job, Kate!

  • Kate's Dedication Award

    Congratulations to our oldest daughter, Kate, who was one of two students at Mount Vernon High School to receive a Dedication certificate "for demonstrating exemplary Major Pride" during the 2014-15 school year. She received the honor from members of the Major Pride (PBIS) Committee. We're very proud of you, Kate!

  • Kate's Winter Concert

    Kate and fellow students and staff performed at a 14th annual Winter Concert last week at Mount Vernon High School. Teachers allow students to perform regardless of their experience as a way of expressing themselves through the arts. Kate has done many things on stage, including dance recitals and community theater. This time, she impressed everyone with her ability to rap to the song "Airplanes" (hence the costume). Congratulations to our soon-to-be 18-year-old daughter, who graduates from Mount Vernon in June and has been accepted into the Pathways to Baccalaureate program at NOVA!

    For more photos from this event, check out my Facebook album here.

  • Kate: The Early Years

    Note: I wrote this essay when Kate was 18 months old. She's now 13. Interesting how we knew something was up even then, isn't it?

    She walked at nine months. She had twin siblings before she turned a year.

    It’s no wonder my daughter Katharine made it to the “terrible twos” several months early.

    We are now in that period of parenthood that my seasoned, been-there-done-that friends refer to as the “teenage preview.” They shake their heads and say, “Just wait ‘til she turns 13.”

    At times, I wonder if my wife and I can make it until she turns two. Little did we know that parenting a pair of infants would be a breeze compared to chasing a toddler with an attitude any high school sophomore would be proud to possess.

    Part of it is the circumstance. With three children under age 2, life around my house is never less than interesting. Going to the bathroom can require an act of Congress and a signed letter from the president. And with Katharine in her present phase, you never know what you’ll find when you get there.

    I’m more convinced than ever that the “terrible twos” are a simple way of identifying “toddler schitzophrenia,” the developmental stage all parents must endure. I just wish they had “toddler Prozac” to help the parents cope.

    One minute, she’s wonderful, working the room like a career politician.

    “Hi, I’m Katharine Cook, candidate for leader of the toddler party. My platform is more beanie weenies, less Spam for all. Glad to meet you.”

    The next is like listening to an air raid siren, battle lines having been drawn when I tried to take something out of her hands.

    “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. For the next 60 seconds, I’m going to let out a scream that will make you think the entire area is under nuclear attack. Please stand by.”

    And so it goes.

    For her parents, moments of quiet have resulted in near “I wonder what she’s gotten into now” paranoia.

    And yet there are moments when I wouldn’t trade this time for anything. 

    With the insanity around my house, it is easy to forget Katharine is only 16 months old. She’s had to change rooms, move from a crib into a bed, and share the attention with twins who — by virtue of their unique nature — naturally snatch a spotlight that once was exclusively hers.

    Partially because of all the changes, Katharine is remarkably self-sufficient for her age. She’s at the phase where she absorbs words and actions like a large sponge sitting at the bottom of a vast ocean. And yet, as much as it makes us cringe, it’s also easy to understand why she occasionally enjoys sitting on her sister’s head. She’s still a baby herself.

    In those rare quiet times, however, all it takes is a certain look to make you forget all of the bad stuff. Her eyes, which are as expressive as her mother’s, alternately make me swell with pride and reach to my face to feel the tears roll down my cheeks.

    Recently Katharine has started waking up in the middle of the night. And even though it usually takes her mother to get her back to sleep, I have made several half-groggy attempts to soothe my daughter.

    In the small rays of dim light provided by the blinds in the bedroom window, I start to rub my little girl’s back, much like I do with her mother. As I watch her eyes move slowly, alternately opening and shutting, I flash forward to those teenage years my friends talk about.

    On some nights, I project even farther into the future. High school. College. The day she has my grandchild. I wonder briefly if her daughter will be as beautiful as she is.

    But that is a lifetime away. A lifetime that will pass much too fast. Ahead is a childhood that I hope we both can enjoy.

    If we survive it, that is.