Thursday, April 13, 2000

Grandparents become parents again


St. Bernard couple raising their children's children

BY Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Lana Cookingham gives morning hug to Chelsea and Clarissa.
(Yoni Pozner photos)
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        Lana Cookingham couldn't take her eyes off her granddaughter.

        The emaciated 19-month-old sat in a high chair at Lana's dining room table. Chelsea's purple floral dress was so big that it slipped off one shoulder, revealing fold after fold of skin.

        It was Mother's Day -- of all days -- when the entire family had gathered to share a meal. Lana's son and daughter-in-law made excuses for how Chelsea looked. A genetic condition from the mom's side of the family, they said.

        Lana doubted.

        She stared and stared at Chelsea.

        ''She was so emaciated,'' Lana says. ''All I kept thinking was, 'This child is dying. This child is dying.' ''

        The 55-year-old St. Bernard woman sat at her kitchen table talking about round two of parenthood. That is when she wasn't changing a diaper, picking up a toy or calming outbursts of sibling rivalry between her three grandchildren. Clarissa, Chelsea and Tiggy are now 5, 4 and 2.

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Bruce Cookingham comforts Tiggy during a doctor's visit.
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        She brushed her ''peroxide blonde'' bangs back as she talked, bringing her forehead wearily to rest on her hand. It was a sign of exhaustion, a
gesture she made repeatedly in conversations over the past 11 months. Her deep voice became a whisper when she talked about the worst moments, almost as if she hoped no one would hear.

        But she shared her story because she wants people to know the struggles grandparents face in raising their grandchildren. She wants more support groups and resources for grandparents. She wants other grandparents to know they are not alone.

        Lana Cookingham and her 57-year-old husband, Bruce, are among a growing legion of grandparents who are raising grandchildren. The trend has inspired the Tristate's first Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Conference today in Northern Kentucky.

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        There are no estimates on how many Tristate grandparents are raising their grandchildren. But the U.S. Census Bureau estimates 5.5 million American children live in homes headed by a grandparent. That's more than twice the 2.2 million households headed by grandparents 30 years ago.

        The Cookinghams raised three children of their own -- two girls and a boy. Now, they're raising three grandchildren -- again two girls and a boy -- but this time the children have special needs.

        Lana and Bruce discovered parenting the second time around is harder. If only grandparents got a blank canvas. But when the grandchildren arrive, their baggage is often packed with physical, mental or behavioral problems.

        Grandparents usually step in because of problems with the parents -- teen pregnancy, death, homelessness, drug abuse, illness, mental instability, abandonment, child abuse, neglect, imprisonment or poor parenting skills.

        Grandparents, too, may have their own health and financial problems. Medicare and most insurance policies won't cover the grandchildren. And grandparents don't have the same legal rights as parents. They often have to fight the child welfare system, whose goal is to reunite the children with their parents.

        Lana and Bruce got custody of their grandchildren after courts in Butler and Hamilton counties decided the children's parents, Grayson and Lisa Cookingham, were unable to care for them. Grayson and Lisa divorced last year but visit their children regularly. They declined to be interviewed. Grayson and Lisa were children raising children, Lana says.

        Experience helps

        Lana stood at her kitchen counter sorting through papers one day last November when Clarissa came running out of her bedroom with a small bleeding gash above her left eye. The crisis was one of the smaller ones Lana has handled. She remained calm.

        ''What happened to you?'' Lana says, swooping Clarissa up onto the kitchen counter for a closer look. Clarissa had bumped into a dresser drawer.

        ''I think this may need stitches.'' Lana says.

        Quickly calling a neighbor to watch Tiggy, she strapped Clarissa and Chelsea into their car seats for the now-familiar trip to Children's Hospital Medical Center.

        Lana got behind the wheel of her 1993 aqua Cavalier convertible. The car is one of the last vestiges of her retirement.

        ''Music of choice?'' she asks the girls.

        ''Barney,'' they cry.

        Lana popped a tape into the cassette player. By the time they arrived, she and the girls were singing the words to ''Good Manners.''

        Three stitches later, Clarissa, the middle child whose antics often send the Cookingham household into mayhem tells Lana softly, ''I love you Mommy.''

        ''I love you, too,'' Lana says, giving her a kiss and hug. ''You were a brave little girl.''

        Lana's life foreshadowed this trip to the emergency room. She believes she and Bruce were destined to raise their grandchildren. Her mother was 44 when she adopted Lana -- an older mother who showed Lana it could be done. Bruce's grandparents raised him.

        ''Everything happens for a reason,'' Lana says. ''There's a God or somebody who put this together. This is not coincidence.''

        The Cookinghams were married 35 years ago in Rhinebeck, where they grew up. They both attended college and obtained advanced degrees. Bruce worked as a Fortune 500 company executive. Lana was a junior high English teacher, but she quit to raise their three children: Kiersten, Ursula and Grayson.

        Bruce grew tired of corporate life and the traveling that went with it, so the family moved to Cincinnati in 1984. He opened a certified public accounting firm and invested in real estate.

        Retirement close

        While Lana continued to raise the children, she began volunteering at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden 10 years ago. As a trained wildlife rehabilitator, she brought animals back from the brink of death. Countless opossums, skunks, raccoons, birds and other small animals were resurrected in her basement.

        Retirement was oh so close. Bruce had gone part time. They looked forward to traveling and spending more time volunteering at the zoo.

        Their lives changed when their teen-age son's girlfriend gave birth to Clarissa in October 1994. Grayson and Lisa married a month later. A year after that, a second daughter, Chelsea, was born.

        Lana and Bruce helped the young couple, giving them a place to live, paying utility bills, buying food, taking the children to the doctor. But the relationship soured as the elder Cookinghams questioned the younger ones' parenting skills.

        ''With your own child, you run a fine line on how much intervening you can do without having them disappear on you,'' Lana says. ''We knew things weren't right, but didn't know the extent.''

        In a way, their son did disappear. Grayson moved his family to Butler County, about six months after Chelsea was born. Visits became less frequent.

        ''We didn't see the children very much,'' Lana said. ''They seemed to keep us away from them. Clarissa would come here, but we rarely saw Chelsea . . . And when we did see them, it was mostly the winter so they were all bundled up. They never really undressed them. If they brought them here it was only for a few minutes.''

        Then came the Mother's Day when Lana got a good look at the children and insisted on taking Chelsea to see a doctor. Children's Hospital confirmed that Chelsea was starving. The 19-month-old weighed 11 pounds, the average weight of a 3-month-old.

        She was hospitalized for 10 days. When she was discharged, Butler County Children Services placed her in a foster home, finding that she had been neglected.

        ''Those were horrible days,'' Lana says.

        Lana and Bruce petitioned the courts so they could visit Chelsea. The court awarded visitation rights to the grandparents. Then, Lana began driving once a week to Butler County to bond with Chelsea.

        Worried that they might lose Clarissa, too, Grayson and Lisa Cookingham signed her over to Lana and Bruce. Clarissa moved in with her grandparents on July 2, 1997.

        Children needy

        Despite 25 years of raising three children and 10 years of nurturing sickly animals for the zoo, nothing prepared Lana for the delicate looking, blond, hazel-eyed girl, Clarissa.

        Nothing.

        ''She used to throw herself against walls because she
didn't have the words to express herself,'' Lana says. ''At 21Ž2 years, she had 15 words of vocabulary when she came here. All she could do is scream or hurt herself. She was an angry, angry child.''

        She threw these tantrums, sometimes daily. Lana resorted to holding time, in which she'd wrap herself around Clarissa like a human strait jacket. ''I've seen her scream, rant and rave for 45 minutes. I'd talk to her. You tell them you love them. You're not going to let them hurt themselves or anybody else. ''

        A doctor recommended Clarissa be evaluated by Cincinnati Center for Developmental Disorders (CCDD). Clarissa was designated developmentally delayed with emotional problems.

        Lana enlisted a speech therapist to help Clarissa catch up on her language. She enrolled her in preschool. She took her to a psychiatrist, whom she sees weekly.

        Lana and Bruce were still coping with Clarissa's tantrums when Grayson and Lisa Cookingham had their third child, Grayson Jr., nicknamed ''Tiggy.'' That was Aug. 23, 1997. Someone called 241-Kids, the anonymous child abuse and neglect hotline, warning Hamilton County officials that Tiggy should not go home with his parents. So, Tiggy moved in with Lana and Bruce.

        Babies are a handful, but Tiggy was even more complicated. He had difficulty sucking and couldn't get enough formula in a single feeding. Lana and Bruce had to feed him every two hours, 24 hours a day, for 31Ž2 months.

        When he was 8 days old, they took him to Children's Hospital. Lana and Bruce watched helplessly as the staff revived him when he stopped breathing. It would be hard to identify a worse moment in a parent's life.

        Tiggy was diagnosed with a virus of unknown origin and remained hospitalized for seven days.

        In the months that followed, Lana and Bruce nurtured Tiggy and watched him grow. He became Bruce's boy.

        All this time, Lana continued weekly visits to Chelsea in foster care. The Cookinghams petitioned the court for temporary custody and had to fight Butler County Children's Services for Chelsea.

        Grandparents suspect

        ''They didn't want me to have three children because they thought I was too old,'' Lana says. ''I said, 'We will fight you. These children are going to be together, and they're going to stay together.' ''

        Child advocates have good reason to worry about placement with grandparents, says Bob Bogan, client relations officer for Butler County Children Services Board. People tend to parent the way they were parented, he says. Furthermore, the age of grandparents is a concern because they must pledge to raise the children until they're 18.

        Children Services would even be cautious about placing three special needs children with young foster parents, he says.

        ''It sounds like the (Cookingham) case had a happy ending, but I'm not surprised we had some concerns,'' he says. ''It's not meant to be insulting to the Cookinghams.''

        As with everything, Lana was characteristically persistent with Butler County officials. ''We're New Yorkers,'' Lana says. ''We don't mind scenes.''

        Chelsea moved in Dec. 4, 1997. The Cookinghams received permanent custody of the children in May 1998. The family was complete. Within six months, Lana and Bruce had gone from planning retirement to being the parents of three children age 3 and under in diapers.

        No single event propelled the Cookinghams to a life-changing conclusion. One day, Lana recalls, Bruce turned to her and said:

        ''You know we're going to have to adopt these children.''

        Bruce and Lana feared Grayson and Lisa wouldn't be able to care for the children. They didn't want the children with Lisa's family. They worried because Lisa's father is registered by Hamilton County as a sexual predator, and he lives in their neighborhood. They wanted to ensure the children never came into unsupervised contact with him.

        And so, in November 1998, the Cookinghams started the process of adoption -- home visits, background checks, long questionnaires to complete. Last May, Lana and Bruce strapped their three toddlers into car seats and headed for the Hamilton County Courthouse.

        At the final adoption proceedings, the Cookinghams smiled like first-time parents as they carried three balloons that said ''I Love You'' and three that said: ''It's a girl.'' ''It's a girl.'' ''It's a boy.''

        The adoption was a milestone and, yet, just another day.

        ''They were mine from the day they walked into this house,'' Lana says. ''It's the hardest thing I've ever done.''

        Problems multiply

        Tiggy turned into a delightfully happy toddler. He was good, too good. Lana realized something else was wrong.

        Last spring, Tiggy was diagnosed low moderate to profoundly deaf in both ears. It could be genetic history repeating itself. The Cookinghams' grown middle child, Ursula, is hearing-impaired.

        The Cookinghams enrolled him in St. Rita's School for the Deaf in June and got his first hearing aids the next month. Since then, they have learned that Tiggy's hearing loss is severe instead of profound. With aids, he's got enough hearing that he's in the speech range.

        Lana and Bruce started sign language classes. Lana constantly talks to Tiggy, signs to him and tells him, ''I hear you.'' She knows if he doesn't learn language by age 3, he probably never will.

        It wouldn't be so bad if it were one problem at a time, Lana says. ''When I found out Tiggy was deaf, I thought, 'Good God, can't one thing ever go right?' ''

        Indeed, Tiggy's hearing loss was only a third of their troubles.

        Last June, Clarissa began having what Lana now calls flashbacks. Clarissa began talking about a fight between her mother and her mother's father. The little girl became more compulsive, rearranging magazines, putting objects in her mouth, destroying toys.

        ''Some days, Clarissa is so off the wall, there's nobody in the world who can handle her,'' says Lana's 25-year-old daughter, Ursula. ''She's always doing something evil to Tiggy or Chelsea, like pinching, biting, kicking. She's picked the baby up and dropped him. She steals their toys.''

        Clarissa went on Dexedrine, a drug that has calmed her, shortly before Christmas, when she became uncontrollable at a school function. It's made a big difference.

        Tiggy is deaf. Clarissa has emotional problems. And there's Chelsea, the child who was starving.

        Chelsea was behind, developmentally, when she came to live with her grandparents in December 1997. Lana hooked up with early intervention services from Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (MRDD).

        For eight months, Chelsea saw an occupational therapist, speech therapist or an MRDD teacher weekly until she enrolled in preschool in October 1998. Although Chelsea is below average height, the Cookinghams decided against growth hormones. She'll be about 5 feet tall, doctors predicted.

        Last September, the family was at a flea market when Chelsea collapsed. Lana thought she merely stumbled, as kids so often do. She picked her up, but Chelsea couldn't stand. She fell three times into a heap like a rag doll.

        Lana worried about everything -- cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, mental retardation. Doctors ordered a sleep-deprived MRI for Chelsea last fall. Lana was elated by test results -- no signs of the catastrophic conditions she dreaded. It's allayed a lot of fears.

        Still, doctors can't say what did cause her to collapse. A mother worries.

        ''When Chelsea's legs went out from underneath her, I thought I was going to die,'' Lana says. ''We don't have an answer for that yet. We know everything is going along fairly decently with her. And we haven't seen it again, but I go to bed at night wondering.''

        Grandparents rush

        Lana and Bruce race frantically one Wednesday, the one morning a week Lana sets aside to volunteer at the zoo.

        ''We took the luxury of lying in bed a little longer this morning talking,'' Lana says. ''Big mistake. Big mistake.''

        Bruce dressed Tiggy, twisting his straps in the back of his overalls because it was too big. Lana untwisted and adjusted the straps when Bruce wasn't looking.

        ''You look very handsome,'' Lana says, admiring Tiggy's new gold Winnie the Pooh overalls and ruffling her fingers through his blond curly hair.

        The girls got on the bus, and Bruce took Tiggy to St. Rita's. ''Goodbye baby boy,'' she says. ''Give me a kiss.'' She signed ''Mama loves you.''

        With not a minute to lose, she grabbed her things and headed out the door for the zoo. She didn't want to be late. On the way, she talked about the zoo staff and fellow volunteers. ''If it wasn't for these people and a couple of others, I wouldn't have made it through this whole thing. ''

        She was home by 11:30 a.m., in time to meet the girls' bus. An hour later, Lana and Clarissa were out the door for a psychiatrist's appointment.

        Lana keeps a calendar hanging on the inside of a kitchen cabinet door. It is nearly black from the marker she uses to scribble in each day's appointments. Preschool conferences. Doctors' appointments. Dance classes. Sign language classes.

        Lana and Bruce have enlisted an army of specialists to fix their children's problems with fine and gross motor skills, language, hearing and mental well-being. The girls go to preschool four mornings a week. Tiggy goes to St. Rita's three days a week. The first few years are important to the child's development. Lana reasons they must fix what they can quickly if the children are to have a decent shot at life.

        Parenting different

        And Lana and Bruce have their own issues. Their appointments go on on the calendar too: Workshops on raising hearing-impaired children. Grandparent support groups. Parenting classes.

        Parenting classes.

        That's something Lana never had to do when her children were growing up, but then, they weren't as challenging as these three. And, she was a lot younger.

        ''I'm 55. I don't sleep well. I get up in the morning, my legs hurt. I'm overweight. Any one day it's running here; it's running there.''

        Lana keeps meticulous records in notebooks -- one for each child. Blue for Clarissa. Multi-colored for Chelsea. Red for Tiggy. Whenever there's a step forward -- Tiggy hears the dog bark -- or a step back -- Chelsea falls off the climber -- Lana makes a note of it. That way, she can tell the doctors, therapists and teachers about the incidents.

        It's draining, and Lana shows signs of wearing out.

        One morning, both girls were home from school because they had vomited in the middle of the night. Lana had been up with them, washing their Bug's Life comforters at 1 a.m.

        She laid her head in her arms on the kitchen counter.

        ''I need 15 years off my life right now,'' she says. ''I could handle this a lot better if I were 15 years younger.''

        The next day, she looked exhausted again. She sat at the kitchen table, rubbing her eyes as she talked about the seven loads of laundry she did the day before.

        Her terrier mix dog, Splinter, seized the moment and jumped on her lap. She has little time for her three dogs anymore. She has little time for herself. And surely no time to read any of the hundreds of books on her shelves.

        ''I could probably be supermom to Clarissa alone. She needs 100 percent attention. Put them all together, and I can't get dinner made. I can't tell you how many crummy dinners I've made. I get to the point where I make some scrambled eggs because it's the only thing I can make quickly. If I turn around to cook, they're in trouble.''

        Lana is strong but even she can only take so much. Does she ever just sit and sob?

        ''Yeah, when it's quiet,'' she says, wiping away tears.

        Sacrifices worth it

        When Lana and Bruce added a sun porch to their St. Bernard home five years ago, it was a place to relax, drink a cup of coffee, watch the sun set, talk about retirement. It was quiet then.

        Today, their sunny sanctuary is a playpen filled with a colorful Little Tikes climber and toys. The second level of their tri-level home is a fortress with baby gates preventing little bodies from wiggling through the railing to the floor below. One end of the kitchen counter is a makeshift diaper-changing table. Lana's aging knees won't allow her to change diapers on the floor.

        ''We're going to go from diapers to Depends,'' Lana jokes.

        Parenthood the second time around has been costly for the Cookinghams.

        ''I marvel at what they've done,'' says their neighbor and friend, Ruth Stidham, 75. ''I think they were just at a point they should be able to lead the life they want.''

        They used to go out together, travel, talk more, Mrs. Stidham says. Now, their lives are not their own.

        They've had financial setbacks from paying attorney fees and some of the medical and education costs not covered by Medicaid or insurance. They've had to sell some of their rental properties, sacrificing what they hoped would be retirement income.

        Bruce missed 162 days of work in 23 months because of appointments with lawyers, social service agencies and court dates.

        They have given up their plans for travel for now. It's hard enough to find a babysitter who can watch their three special-needs youngsters while they take an evening out alone.

        Still, Bruce says he has no regrets. ''I may not get to see as many parts of the world as I'd like to see, but I will get far more enjoyment from my association with my kids,'' he said.

        Their relationships with their two grown daughters have suffered. They have little time for friends. Lana can't go to lunch on a whim any more.

        Her daughter Ursula wishes Lana and Bruce could spend more time with her 5-year-old daughter, Samantha. ''Sammy doesn't get time alone with them,'' Ursula said. ''I feel like I've lost my Mom. I loved to be able to go over to my Mom's and say 'Let's go shopping,' and she could just walk out the door.''

        Ursula says her parents have given up a lot to take care of these kids. ''On the other hand, they couldn't have better parents."

        Life at their house is always chaotic, just like any house where there are three children 5 and under. But chaos doesn't always mean crisis. Fits of laughter erupt frequently. The children squeal with delight over the littlest things -- an unexpected visitor, a new book about reptiles or a trip to White Castle with ''Pop.'' The Cookinghams spend most of their time just getting through the daily routine.

        Some day, when the children are older, Lana will tell them everything. For now, the Cookinghams are making sure the children have good memories to tuck away, too. They take the kids to restaurants, outdo themselves decorating for holidays, go to parades and festivals.

        Today Chelsea is the picture of health and happiness -- far different from the emaciated 19-month-old who came to dinner on Mother's Day nearly three years ago. She's a different child, thanks to two grandparents who loved her and her siblings enough to postpone their dreams -- possibly forever.

        Sixteen years from now, on Tiggy's 18th birthday, Lana will be 71. Bruce will be 72.

        Maybe then, they can retire.

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