No, Virginia. No!

I have an old winter jacket that I wear when I walk the dogs. I put it on at least a hundred times a year for such walks. And there is a pocket inside the jacket–a breast pocket that sits close to my heart. And inside that pocket were two envelopes containing two letters–letters that rested there for over four years. Letters to Santa.

Many a night I would feel the edges of those letters in the zippered breast pocket and think about how I held a secret close to my chest.

FullSizeRender (12)-001

A lifetime ago, when my youngest son was half his age, and my older one still looked like a little boy, I was handed these letters. I’m sure I was on my way out the door to walk the dog (we only had one at the time) when the boys forced the envelopes into my hand. And being the dutiful dad, I promised to place those ever-important letters in our mailbox, so Santa would indeed know what two little boys on his list wanted for Christmas.

Once outside, I’m sure I shoved those letters in that pocket and zipped it up tight, And there they sat, and sat, and sat. I didn’t plan on housing them in the jacket this long ( I didn’t plan on having the jacket this long, either). But you know how life is. Things have a way of just remaining in our lives, until, one day, they don’t. Things like jackets, and secrets, and Santa Claus.

As time passed, I would occasionally feel the letters inside the pocket. My hand would brush past the flattened lump, and I would think, Oh, right, the boys letters to Santa. How long have they been inside this coat…1 year, 2 years, 3 then 4? What if they discover them? Well, even if they don’t find these letters, they will one day learn the truth, and then these letters will remind me that it’s the end of__________. And that’s the part I always fumbled on. The end of what? Innocence? No. Childhood? Certainly not? The magic? Perhaps. I would settle on magic and tug my coat a little tighter–a reminder that for now the letters meant they still believed.

But Easter morning changed all that. Yes, the Easter Bunny dropped a big dose of reality in the boys’ baskets this year–the fact that he doesn’t really exist. And with that came the dreadful domino effect–no Bunny, no Tooth Fairy, and no Santa!

It was a wonderful morning. Honestly. I had just thought to myself how much I was enjoying this particular Easter Sunday. The boys let us sleep in. They bounced into our room with homemade cards. They helped each other find their eggs. The sky was even as sunny as our dispositions.

And as Owen (10) was coming back in the house from getting me the newspaper (another reason it was such a splendid morning) he got a quizzical look upon his face,

“Wait. How did you know there were 22 eggs in all if the Easter Bunny hid them?”

Pause. Parental glance.

“What?” he said, a bit panicky. “Is he not real?”

Another pause–this one more awkward. Parental glance and simultaneous nod, yes.

Tears sprung from his eyes as big as Cadbury Mini Eggs. “Nooooooooooo!”

“Does that mean there’s no Tooth Fairy?” said Hayden (8). Another affirmative nod.

“Oh, God! Is there no Santa Claus?” Two more nods. Owen was inconsolable (I just caught myself grimacing, recalling these moments while writing this post–it is so incredibly sad that THEY were so incredibly sad.)

“I guess there are no leprechauns, either?” chimes Hayden.

“No, Hayd. No leprechauns.”

“We’re sorry, guys. We thought you might already have had an idea that these things weren’t real.”

“No,” says one. “We still believed,” says the other.

The day continues in fits and starts. The boys calm down, then get weepy again. Calm. Weepy. Calm. Weepy. In talking about the various characters that have been visiting our house this past decade, we recall many memories. Pam produces two tiny jewelry boxes; each a home for the boys’ teeth. And I run to that old winter jacket and pull out their letters to Santa that I had hidden in there for four years now.

Owen opens his letter and tries to decipher his wish list to Santa.

FullSizeRender (8)-001

Hayden opens his and bursts into laughter.

FullSizeRender (9)-001

Rest assured, he got the Bat Cave that year.

WE spend the hours saying all the lines we hope will soften the blow. Things like: There really is a Santa Claus–it just happens to be mom and dad…I know it seems like we lied to you, but think of it as playing pretend–we pretended there was a Tooth Fairy…You had fun at the egg hunt yesterday, and you knew our friends hid the eggs–not the Easter Bunny…Look at how much you love Harry Potter–that whole world is made up, too. And on, and on, and on.

Pam and I try to gauge their emotions. “Are you worried that now that you know the truth, you won’t get as many presents next Christmas?” she asks the boys. “No,” Owen says, “I don’t care about the presents. I’m just sad about the magic.”

We all were sad. Pam and I got a bit teary recalling the many times we played these parts. Truth is, I’ve been wanting to live in a world without the pressures of these imaginary figures lording over me. I thought Hayden would have another year or two of believing beyond Owen, and when I told my nieces that, they said, “No. It’s good they had each other to lean on.” That made me feel better.

But when I saw them crying and even a little pained by this news, I realized what made me sad was not the fact that they know the truth–I never felt right lying to them once they were in grade school. No, what made me sad was seeing my sons hurting and knowing that they just had to suffer through this loss, the way they will when other painful things–real tragedies and the world’s harsh realities–come across their path.

That night, in the bathroom getting ready for bed, I sit on the tub’s edge as they take turns coming in to brush their teeth. I can tell they’re sad again. They are unusually quiet.

I watch Owen in the mirror and our eyes meet. “I know today was hard. I don’t really have anything to say that will make the pain go away. But I want you to know that we are a family, and we will get through this together. And each day, it will get a little easier. I promise.”

I feel good about this, so I repeat these words to Hayden when it’s his turn to brush. Both boys seem comforted by my message, but as I sit in the hall and listen to them settling in to sleep, I hear heavy sighs and a few stifled cries.

They’ll just have to be sad for a time, I think. But then I recall my words, and I repeat them in my mind. “…We are a family, and we will get through this together.” There is such power in words, and these words helped my boys realize that when we share the pain, it doesn’t hurt as much.

And now, that’s what I’ve been carrying close to my heart since that day–and I have to admit, there’s a little magic in such thinking.

++++++++++++++++++++++++

Here are Owen and Hayden’s cards from Easter morning. The last thing they created as true believers. After the cold hard reality set in, their drawings took a dark turn for me. I kept imagining Owen’s #1 fingers as middle fingers, and Hayden’s bunny brandishing a gun instead of a carrot.

FullSizeRender (11)-001

FullSizeRender (6)-001

Advertisements

Guest Post: I Wish These Genes Didn’t Fit

This is a first for me: A guest post. It is a piece my sister, Kristen, wrote about something important happening to her. I offered my blog as an outlet because her message is an important one. Kristen has always been a close confidant; a source of light and laughter for me. Thanks, Kristen. And thank you for reading!

I Wish These Genes Didn’t Fit, By: Kristen Trainer Dion

When I was pregnant with my youngest child, Willa, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Looking back, it terrified me, but it didn’t come as a shock. “Here it is, again!” I thought. “The black cloud that followed her for most of her life.” Her mom and grandmom both died of the disease after fighting with everything they had. My grandmom had both of her breast removed in what they called a radical mastectomy. Still, she succumbed to cancer.

Now, I worried that my unborn baby would never know her grandmom. No Grammy sleepovers, or trips to The Dollar Store, or McDonald’s or to the movies. My other two children were so young, I worried that they wouldn’t know her like I never really got to know my grandmom.

I am so grateful that was not the end to this story, but the beginning of my own personal journey. When my mom’s health returned after chemo, her doctor urged her to get genetic testing  because of her strong family history, and the fact that she was not only a breast cancer survivor but she had also survived STAGE 3 Ovarian Cancer! #miracle #sheismeantobehere! Lol.

My mom found out she did in fact carry the BRCA gene, a gene that increases a woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer up to 50% and breast cancer up to 80%. She urged me, well actually begged me, to get the testing done. I blew her off for a good while and then finally gave in just so she would stop talking about it.

I am so thankful she never did stop talking! You see, I am a carrier of the BRCA gene as well.

When I found out I had tested positive for the gene, I remember just breaking down. I was heartbroken and consumed with worry. I immediately thought of my daughters. What about their breasts? Will they be more at risk for getting breast cancer?  Will my son pass this along to his children? These thoughts were unbearable.

I know all too well the devastation of cancer and chemo. I have seen my mom’s beautiful bald head more times than I would have liked. I have witnessed her being so sick that she could not move or do anything at all. I have seen her body after she had both her breasts removed.

And yet, I have also witnessed pure strength and what the human spirit will do to survive! Like so many incredible, strong woman out there, my mom fought her way back to health–fought her way back from cancer–twice!!

About a week after finding out I had the gene, I started to realize the magnitude of having this information. I started to feel so blessed, so incredibly lucky.  I am grateful we live in a time where I have the opportunity to find out if I am destined to get this horrible illness. I believe with all my heart that if you are a woman with the BRCA gene in my family, you will get ovarian or breast cancer.  At the urging of my doctor, two weeks after my 40th birthday, I had my ovaries removed. I was to follow that up with an MRI, then 6 months later, a yearly mammogram. Sounded like a good plan!

Only, I am a mom of 3 and life gets in the way. What should have been an MRI in January turned into an MRI in November. Then, when I was at Fox Chase Cancer Center, the doctor found a lump in my left breast, and another under my left arm. I was overcome with fear.  Luckily, I only had to wait until later that day before they got me in for an ultrasound and all was fine. But in that time I waited, I thought of all the women who had a lump that was cancerous. Of the women who fought with all of their might to survive this disease. I thought of the families out there that had to watch someone they love suffer. I was so scared. I didn’t think I could be that strong.

I think my husband, Todd, was more scared than I. We talked that night, and he told me how he thought the odds were stacked against me. He told me he really wanted me to consider getting my breasts removed — that our family would be nothing without me, and he could not bear to watch me suffer. I am so blessed that he is my best friend! After a lot of conversations like that, I decided that I don’t want this dark cloud hanging over my head for the rest of my life. I don’t want to worry in between MRIs and mammograms that one day I will go in and everything won’t be fine. I don’t want to follow the same destiny as my mom, and my grandmom, and my great grandmom…. In my heart, I knew what I had to do.

And so, this Wednesday, March 18th, I will be getting a double mastectomy with reconstruction.  I know this may not be the right decision for everyone, but it is the right decision for me and my family. I don’t feel that this will in any way diminish my femininity, but empower me as a woman. It is so profound that I can take control.  Control of my health and future, and with this information I can make sure my children and future generations can do the same. As a mom, that is such an incredible gift!

Because of genetic testing, we have a fighting chance against ovarian and breast cancer. And for that I am deeply grateful! This is my story, my chance to rewrite my family’s genetic history. My dream is that my daughters will not have to make this decision because there will be a cure for breast cancer. My hope is that women continue to get genetic testing, so they won’t have to endure this horrible disease. My heart is with all the families that have had to watch someone they love suffer. My prayers are for the women who continue to fight with all their might. I pray for their healing; that they may  live a long and blessed life! My thoughts will always be with the beautiful women who have been taken from us in their brave battle against ovarian and breast cancer.

My mother and grandmother

My mother and grandmother

IMG_2923

Mom and me

dion family

My family

 

Gary On My Wayward Son

It came in a text message so short it could have been a tweet. It read: I love you and mom. Gary. And there it was, my son’s first genuine attempt at saying he loves me, sent to us via his older brother’s iPod Touch.

Now, if you’ve read my blog, then you probably know that I have two sons, neither of whom is named Gary. The Gary in question would be my eight year old, Hayden. And if you keep reading, I promise you’ll find out why we call him Gary.

When it comes to Hayden, I struggle with finding the right words to describe him, probably because he is such a dichotomy. The second born, he can be loving and kind one minute, angry and cruel the next. He is moody, he is temperamental, he is high maintenance, he is–dare I say it–me.

Hayden and I are a lot alike, and that’s why we tend to butt heads. When we’re not fighting, we get along famously. He’s the one whose more inclined to run errands with me, to walk the dogs, to go watch a high school basketball game.

But, I have a saying I use on him sometimes when he has tried my patience. I say, “And one day, Hayden, you will have a son of your own. And he will do these things to you, and you will call me on the phone and say ‘Dad, do you believe what he just did? I was never like that, was I?’ And I’ll say, ‘Oh, Hayden, you have no idea. No idea!'”

Our love for each other manifests itself in small ways. He’ll hold my hand when we’re walking in a crowded parking lot or the quiet fields near our house. He’ll rest his head on my shoulder as we sit and watch TV. He lets me kiss him goodnight. He even wants me to lie with him til he falls asleep. Yet, in the eight and a half years I have known him, he has never been able to say “I love you.”

When he was a toddler, I forced a few mumbles out of him, but never a clear expression.

The lack of “I love you, toos” used to bother me. I told myself to just keep saying it, and it would sink in for him to respond. But sometimes, my annoyance with his silence made me petulant. One night last year, I remember putting him to bed. Like every night, I tucked him in, kissed him and said:

gn.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

And in return, I got this:

gn.3

 

 

 

 

 

 

To which I said in an annoyed tone:

gn.4

 

 

 

 

 

 

To which Hayden responded:

gn.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

“SORT OF!?” I shouted, echoing him.

“Yeah,” he replied, “it means a little.”

So I gave up. I no longer cajoled. I never begged. I just kept saying it and meaning it. And in the past year, I’ve noticed him get more thoughtful about it. I see the smile on his face when we say those words to him. I see his eyes beam when we tell him how much he means to us. The other night, I tucked him in and did my routine of tickling/stealing kisses from him. When our game ended, and I went to give him his “official” goodnight kiss, I heard him whisper “fifteen.” “Fifteen what?” I asked. “Kisses. You gave me fifteen kisses.” I had two thoughts–well three: One–that’s a bit excessive. Two–how cute that he counted. And three–how much longer will he let me kiss him goodnight?

I do not know the answer to that. What I do know is that this boy understands he is loved. And I know it is reciprocated. A week ago, Hayden became sullen (for the tenth time that day). “What’s wrong, sweetie?” my wife asked him. He shared with her how he does love us, but he is not comfortable saying it. “Do you want me to tell dad?” she asked. He nodded yes. She obliged.

“No problem, buddy,” I said.  “We know you do. People show their love through their actions.” (My little passive aggressive/reverse psychology attempt at getting him to be nicer).

Then a few days after sharing his hesitation with us, we get the text. From our son…Gary. Hayden’s nickname came about as a coping mechanism. As a toddler, when he would pitch a fit, I’d say, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” This seemed a little extreme. Besides, I didn’t want to be blamed for giving him the idea if he became one, so I had to change my approach. When we thought of Hayden’s temper, Pam and I would joke about the boy in the movie Parenthood with Steve Martin. Dianne Wiest’s character had a son named Gary (played by a young Joaquin “Leaf” Phoenix). He was so angry and anti-social, yet she killed him with kindness. “Hi, Gaaaaaaarrrrrry,” she’d say with her sweet smile and kind voice. Gary was batshit crazy, but his mom was going to love him sane.

Pam and I took to saying “Hi, Gaaaarrrrrry” when Hayden became especially inconsolable.  As good parents, we tried to do it behind his back, or when he was out of earshot, and it was surprisingly therapeutic. “Hi, Gaaarrrrrrry” had the effect of a deep, relaxing breath. And as we slowly let our Gaaarrryyyy comments creep into our dealings with him, it became a way for us to try to kill Hayden with kindness. “What’s wrong, Gaaarrry?” “Awww, are you mad, Gaaarrry?” Our Gaaarrrrys would be extra long, an octave too high, and more sugary than a powdered donut.

As the years passed, the name found its way into more of our everyday lives. Now, it’s not uncommon to greet Hayden as Gary when he comes in the house from school or play. At first, Pam told me not to, but he piped in with, “No, I like it!” Oh, we still whip out our Gaaarrrry when he starts to act up, but Hayden has taken to the name–he has never seen Parenthood, although we did tell him about Dianne Wiest’s devil child.  Truth is, the more the name sticks, the less like Gary our Gary  Hayden is. How’s that for irony?

So, when I get a text from a kid named Gary who claims his love for me, I know I’m making progress. And when I get that phone call from him years from now about his own son’s behavior, I’ll say, “Put Gary on the phone, I want to talk to him.”

Cartoons by the talented artist Aidan Murphy.

Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man: The Etch-a-Sketch Rendering

Owen (10) loves to use the Etch-a-Sketch. He draws all kinds of things on it, including yours truly. This rendition of me is pretty spot-on, and he made sure to point out that he “even included my chest hair.”  Can you find me?

etch

The Crayola Factory Is Not Where Babies Come From

Last week, we took a day trip to the charming town of Easton, Pennsylvania to visit the Crayola Factory. Like most families, our kids have been holding Crayola crayons since they were babies. And, like most families, we took this one-hour car ride to the factory to talk to our boys about sex. Nothing says sex like…Wait. You don’t see the connection? (I’m relieved). The two are not connected, but that’s the thrill of parenting: you never know which direction your children will take you, even when you have Google Maps on your phone.

In the morning, as we are getting ready to leave, Owen (10) walks up to Pam and whispers something to her about sex. “Do you know what sex is?” she asks.

He shakes his head no. “Some kids at school were talking about it,” he says.

Hayden (8) chimes in: “And someone wrote it on the seat of the bus.”

We exchange a look. The time has come.

“Well, we have an hour in the car. We can tell you all about it,” I say. Owen looks nervous. “Don’t worry, buddy,” I say, “sex never takes a whole hour.” Pam shoots me a look that says behave, Michael. Behave.

And so our journey began. It was like Masters and Johnson by way of Binney and Smith.

Me: Guys, pause your video games. Mommy and I need your attention.

Pam: Are we really doing this now? We haven’t prepared what to say.

Me: It’ll be alright. We just have to start the conversation today. Boys, do you know anything about sex?

Boys: No.

Me: You have NO idea?

Boys: No.

Me: It’s okay if you have. We just want you to know the truth.

Both boys shake their heads. Sure, they giggle at the word “sexy” in songs. Sure, they wonder why Snow White and Prince Charming kiss so much in the TV show Once Upon a Time. They’ve heard talk, but they just weren’t putting two and two–or should I say X and Y–together.

Me: Well.. (deep breath) sex is something two people do when they are in love. It is a physical act. During sex, a man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina.

Both boys appear panic-stricken.

Me: A man and a woman have sex when they want to have a baby.

Both boys mouths drop.

Hayden: You’re freaking me out, dad.

Owen: Do we have to have sex?

Me and Pam in unison: No!

Owen: Do we have to have sex if we want to have kids?

Pam: Well, no, there are–

Me: Honey, let’s keep it simple. Yes, sex is where babies come from.

Owen: I’m not having kids.

Me: And, when a woman has a baby, it actually comes out of her vagina, not her belly.

Hayden: No way!

Me: Way.

Pam: It can come out her belly if…

Me: Keep it simple, hon.

Pam: Well, both of them did come out of my belly.  Mommy had what’s called a cesarean section with both of you.

More looks of fear.

Hayden: So, you guys had to have sex twice?

Pam: Mm-hmm.

Hayden: Oh, my gosh, Owen, could you imagine if you walked in on mom and dad when they were making me?

Owen: Stop, Hayden! That’s crazy. Can we stop talking about this now?

Me: Yes, we can. But I want you to know, you can ask us anything you want about sex. I’m sure you are going to hear things from other kids, and we just want you to know the facts. I’d rather you hear it from us then on the bus or from kids at school.

Hayden: Sex! Ew, that’s so weird. Why would anyone have sex?

Me: And don’t be those kids that go around telling everyone else what sex is now that you know.

Owen: Don’t worry. I don’t want to think about it. I’m NEVER having sex.

Hayden: Me neither!

++++++

For the rest of the day, the word pops up every so often. The boys crack up and shake their heads in disgust and amazement, but overall. a fine first outing.

AS we explore the Crayola Factory, I am thankful for all of the wonder they still have in being kids. Coloring and creating, climbing the crayon shaped jungle gym; making figurines out of molding clay. This is what it’s like, I think. They are exposed to things, and then they go back to being kids. Like rubber bands, their minds’ stretch, but then return–almost–to the original shape–almost.

++++++

A few days later, Hayden hands me a note from school. It’s announcing the return of his guidance counselor from maternity leave.

“How exciting!” I say. “Maybe she will bring in her baby for your class to meet.”

Hayden seems preoccupied by something. Finally, he says, “Her poor husband.”

“Poor husband?” I say, confused. “Why her poor husband?”

“Umm. I think you know.”

“No, I don’t buddy.”

“Ummm. S-E-X,” he spells.

“Sex!” Owen exclaims.

“Yeah, the poor guy had to have sex with her!” Hayden says.

“He’ll be alright,” I say. “He’ll be alright.”

And so will you, I think to myself.

 

Behold the boys latest creations, brought to you by Crayola markers. Can you spot any damage from our conversation?

"Skater Down a Manhole Cover" By: Hayden

“Skater Down a Manhole Cover” By: Hayden

"Rocky Roads" by: Owen

“Rocky Roads” by: Owen

The Best Thing I learned in 2014

When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.       1 Corinthians 13: 11-13

I am not one to quote scripture. In fact, this passage is the first I’ve read all year, and it’s December 31st. Yet, the last line of this beautiful excerpt kept finding its way into my thoughts the past few months. Often read at weddings, these words resonate because they deal with the enduring power of love. And that’s what prompted me to recall them– a wedding.

The invitation arrived mid-September. Charles Trainer and Ray Giovine requested the honor of my presence at their wedding celebration. My oldest brother was getting married to the love of his life, the man he had fallen in love with over twenty years ago.

Immediately, I knew I was going. Even though it was across the country, even though it was only a few weeks away, even though I had not spoken to my brother in over a year, I was not going to miss this wedding.

For most of the time since Charlie left home, he and I have not been close. To the outside, this distance may have seemed a direct link to his being gay, but to me, and I think him as well, there was just too much space to fill the void left  by our childhood. Growing up in such a large family, everyone seems determined to exert their individuality. There is a need to be heard through all the noise, a drive to be noticed in the fray. Finding oneself can prove difficult. Gaining approval and acceptance even more so. Imagine living your life with the knowledge that what you do and say, think and believe, will be dissected and interpreted by many–not just your parents, but your many siblings as well. Such pressure can drive one away.

When I was very young, I idolized my brother–I wanted his wavy hair, his sense of style, his good looks. I thought he was so cool. When I was in college. I could see him struggling to find himself. He was in a hurry to begin his life, a life that could not be lived in the smallness of a Pennsylvania suburb. That life led him first to New York City, and then to Los Angeles, where he has lived most of his adult years.  Yet, when he left home, there was no clarification, no discussion, no closure.

If I were in charge of the world, my brother would have come out in his teens to an accepting, open-minded family. He would have felt empowered to embrace his future as a gay man; he would have been emboldened to teach others how to accept differences.  In a world that celebrates the wonder of Cam and Mitchell as the couple next door on Modern Family, in a world where the kiss between Madonna and Brittany Speers now seems passe, it is hard to remember how far we’ve come in the way of same-sex relationships. Yet, it doesn’t take much to recall the fear, the ignorance, the animosity, the struggle that so many endured to be who they were born to be.

********************************

My sister Kristen and I boarded a plane on a Friday night at six o’clock and would spend less than 48 hours in L.A. But we traveled with the excitement of two people who had just won a trip from a local radio contest. When we arrived at LAX, Charlie met us at the gate. At fifty, he still has this boyish charm: the youthful bounce in his walk, an excitability in his voice. None of us could really believe we were here, at this point, and yet it was the moment we had all been waiting for these few decades.

My mother had arrived earlier in the day with my sister-in-law, Terry, and we made plans to meet the next morning. Charlie and Ray had already exchanged vows at the courthouse, in a private ceremony with just two of their closest friends as witnesses. The reception was to take place the following evening.

Saturday was spent driving around LA, hanging at The Grove, a trendy shopping complex, and trekking up to the HOLLYWOOD sign. This was fine, but none of us cared much for sightseeing that day–we were here for a wedding, and could not wait to celebrate with my brother and Ray.

On our way back to the hotel, we decided to stop by to see how the grooms were holding up. Now, my brother Charlie could teach Martha Stewart a thing or two. His talent rivals any on the HGTV circuit. He is a virtual MacGyver with some fabric and flowers. He and Ray are so well matched because Charlie is the host and Ray works behind the scenes. Charlie creates, Ray cleans up.

Indeed, Charlie created dozens of centerpieces for the wedding using thousands of flowers he purchased wholesale. He covered tables and chairs with fresh linens and burlap. He adorned trees and rooftops with light strings and candles. He transformed his beautiful backyard into the French countryside.

Seeing that the decorating had hit the eleventh hour, we all pitched in to help Char achieve his perfect vision. Charlie directed and we obliged. He was beyond appreciative, and we felt a sense of purpose as is the desire with family weddings.

A few hours later, we returned. The backyard was aglow in candlelight, the air sweet with the smell of peonies. Hundreds of people sipped champagne and noshed on pizzas fresh from an outside oven.

And as I moved around the spacious yard, I felt like I took on the role of witness. I did not know many people, although many made a fuss over Char’s family. But as a witness, I observed the beauty that surrounded me. Not just the flowers and twinkling lights, or the various photos and memorabilia that celebrated the life these two had already built together. Beyond all this, I observed the beauty of love.

I have been to countless weddings at this point in my life; I have seen many happy couples pledge to be together “til death do us part”. I even know the humbling, powerful nature of taking such a vow myself. Yet, here, at this wedding somewhere in West Hollywood, I felt a sense of love stronger than I have at most weddings I’ve attended. The love in that place was palpable, the energy kinetic.

Why?

I was equally moved and confused by this. Why would I feel more love here than at other such events? How could this event capture more of a sense of love? A physical, tangible sense of love?

The answer was quite clear. I felt the love in their yard, their house, more, because that love had to endure more to flourish. Think of a pearl that begins with a gritty grain of sand; a rose bush that stems from a gnarled, scarred root. This love had to struggle more to bloom. These two adults had to fight more to be united. And beyond Ray and Charlie, the love I felt emanated from the guests. Each of the people there bore witness to the power that love has, each person wished to join these two men in honoring their union as husband and life.

The love present that night multiplied and magnified a love that took root twenty-three odd years before. A love that some people in the world–many more people when it first took shape–said NO, it must not be, it cannot be. A love that answered back– year after year, in sickness, in health, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, til death–Oh, yes we can. We must. We will.

When I hugged my brother that night, I felt our years apart evaporate. The gap between the past and the future closed, and he and I were standing in the present–the here and now. It was as if I was truly embracing him for the first time. I looked around at the many adoring friends he had–friends who were now like family–and I felt lucky to be among them, to bear witness.

And so, as we begin a new year, filled with ongoing hopes, struggles, desires and fears, let me share a reminder with you that I more fully understand, thanks to my brother, Charlie, and his husband, Ray. Something I can see now with a sharper sense of clarity: the greatest of these is love. THE GREATEST OF THESE IS LOVE.

Brothers and sister.

Sister and brother of the groom.

Family Portrait Front Row: Ray, Charlie, Teri, Kristen Back Row: Dadicus, Mom

Family Portrait
Front Row: Ray, Charlie, Terry, Kristen
Back Row: Dadicus, Mom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disney Loves Company

The family Grinch recently endured  survived  returned from a magical trip to Walt Disney World. Truth is, we had a wonderful time. Exhausting, but wonderful. One thing that I noticed was the fact that each day became less hellish. What was met with dread on day one (Yes, we have to take a car, then a tram, then a ferry to the Magic Kingdom…Yes, the wait time for this ride is 50 minutes…Yes, the line to greet Mickey is longer than the length of our home state) was, by day three, met with acceptance, even contentment (Wow, the monorail takes half the time as the ferry…Cool, the wait time for this ride is ONLY 45 minutes…Aww, look at those poor suckers waiting in line for a photo op with Mickey).

But not to worry. This post is not a park-by-park summary of our stay. Rather, it’s a reflection on my first trip to Disney, when I was just about my oldest son’s age–10. For some reason, every experience I have as a dad is reimagined through the lens of myself as a boy.  And as we sat on the plane, ready for takeoff from Philadelphia International, I watched my sons quietly working through the sticker books that their mom makes sure they have for each plane ride. I was impressed with how seasoned they’ve become as airplane passengers. Even though traveling today takes the patience of a saint, it has become somewhat enjoyable as the boys are getting older–maybe not enjoyable, but at least manageable. And it was with this observation that I hearkened back to my first time on a plane, traveling to Orlando, Florida–to visit Walt Disney World.

The year was 1980. A time of feathered hair and large combs peaking from the back pockets of Wrangler jeans. A time when my teenage siblings dabbled with Sun-in and Dexatrim. A time when the ominous face of the Ayatollah Kohmeni stared up at me from our doorstep every morning when our neighbor, Kevin, delivered The Bulletin. A time when a news anchor by the name of Ted Koppel informed the nation each night about America’s hostages. It was during this time of familial and political upheaval that my parents decided to bring us to Disney. ALL SEVEN OF US–nine including them.

Yes, we loaded up our duffel bags and set out for the Sunshine State.

Honestly, I don’t recall much of our actual visit to Disney World, except for the fact that so much that is there today was non-existent: Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Universal…None of those existed yet. But, I do recall our plane trip down there, and  its abysmal aftermath.

I wore my Mickey Mouse shirt–not the t-shirt, but one with pearly buttons that snapped and had little vignettes of Mickey in pioneer gear. I loved that shirt, and felt like Disney royalty wearing it on the plane with my favorite pants, a pair of Toughskin kakhis. We were flying TWA (Trans World Airlines) and my mother assuaged any fears we might have by saying that we were sure to make it there safely since TWA stood for Traveling With Angels. “Do angels hold up the wings?” I asked, nervously. “Of course they do,” she assured me.

Once on the plane, I sat with my sister and brother who were closest in age. The rest of the family was scattered throughout the cabin. Freedom. Such freedom that it felt like I was flying first class. Freedom to order sodas and peanuts, and pretzels, and more soda.

Boy, was flying fun back then! My brother and sister and I just lounged around the seats chewing wads of gum to ward off ear popping. And we struck up a conversation with a girl across our row, who got out of her seat and chatted away with us, all while hanging in the aisle. Each time the stewardess walked by–yes, that’s what they were called back then, stewardesses–I would ask for another drink or snack. She must have liked us, because she obliged every time. I didn’t know what Disney was going to be like, but this plane ride was enough of a highlight for me. “Are you kids behaving?” my mom asked on her way to the bathroom, lit cigarette dangling in her hand. “Yes,” we all said in unison, including our new best friend from across the aisle.

As we approached Florida, the plane began to experience turbulence. The fun was over. Everyone to their seat, lap belts fastened. Once settled in my chair, I felt anything but. The ride turned bumpy and the half-dozen sodas percolated in my stomach with all the peanuts, chips, pretzels, and candy I had consumed in the past two hours.

“I’m going to be sick,” I said, looking at my sister.

“Well, use this!” she said, fetching me the barf bag from my seat pocket. As I struggled to open it, I could feel the bile in my throat. I had seconds to react. Finally, I pried the bag open, and as I pushed my mouth towards its opening, we hit a major air pocket. BUMP! The vomit missed the bag and spewed all over my shirt (Oh, Pioneers, Mickey!) and my favorite pants. I was covered in remnants of our junior happy hour.

“Mom, Michael threw up!” Erin yelled.

“What?” said my mom, a few rows up.

“MICHAEL THREW UP!!”

Thankfully, my mom came back to get me. She and the stewardess walked me to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet while my mom wiped my clothes. The stewardess–she really was an Angel–kept rinsing towels and handing them to my mom. The plane rocked its way to the runway, and I jumped from the tiny toilet seat crammed in the bathroom with my mother and another. “Welcome to Orlando,” a voice sang over the intercom. I stifled a moan.

I exited the plane, damp and smelling of a mixture of Coke, bile, and pretzel salt. I felt groggy. Hungry yet full. Excited and embarrassed. We were in Disney! I had to move on.

After getting the luggage, we made our way to the rental car company. My dad stood at the counter, and 16 eyeballs bore into his back. “What is taking so long?” someone finally whined.

“I’m sorry. There’s been a mix-up,” said the man behind the counter. “You rented a van, and vans are at our other facility. We’ll have to take you there.” He looked at the gaggle behind my father. “All of you.”

All of us AND our luggage. And so ten of us–TEN- squeezed in to a four door sedan. The nine of us and the rental car worker. As we tried to figure out seating, everyone was getting grumpy. My six siblings lapped it in the back seat. My mom sat between the driver and my dad in the front seat. And me? Where was I? I was crouched in the well of the passenger side, scrunched up against the glove compartment, sitting on my dad’s feet while whiffs of evaporating throw up stung my nostrils…

How many people can say they’ve ridden in a car looking up from the glove compartment?

My son’s voice brings me back to the present.”Dad, my ears hurt,” he says as we begin making our descent into Orlando.

“Okay, buddy, do you want some gum?” “I’m chewing gum!” he cries, showing me his mouth. Uh-oh, the meltdown is about to begin.

“Try to yawn…stretch your mouth…hold your breath AND your nose and then blow.” I look like I’m playing charades as I mimic each movement. Nothing is helping and he is inconsolable. He writhes in pain then attempts to kick the back of the chair in front of us, so now I have to hold down his legs. I try to bribe him. Give him candy. I know he’s in pain, but really? Really? This seems a little extreme.

Finally, when it appears he can take no more, we reach an altitude where his ears clear. Ahhh. I can see he’s still upset, and I want to try to make him feel better. I reach for his hand and squeeze it tight. “Did I ever tell you about my first time in an airplane?” I begin. “It was also to Walt Disney World”…

My oldest brother, Charlie, and I. There's my Mickey shirt, pre-tragedy.

My oldest brother, Charlie, and I. There’s my Mickey shirt, pre-tragedy.

 

 

All the kids with my dad before our flight to Disney. My glasses seem to be made out of the same plastic as my bangs.

All the kids with my dad before our flight to Disney. My glasses seem to be made out of the same plastic as my bangs.

All smiles in the park. One of the only pictures I know where I am sporting cleavage.

All smiles in the park. One of the only pictures I know of where I am sporting cleavage.

 

TWA boarding pass. Smoking? YES!

TWA boarding pass. Smoking? YES!

The ONLY picture of our family in front of The Magic Kingdom. The beauty of a Polaroid camera--you know how shitty the picture is instantly!

The ONLY shot of our family in front of The Magic Kingdom. The beauty of a Polaroid camera–you know how shitty the picture is instantly!