death

Nature’s Way

My wife was the first one to notice. A bird had built a nest in the wreath that hung from our front door. Actually, it was two different birds, as thereFullSizeRender (21) were two types of eggs in the small stick structure–two speckled brown and four light blue.

The boys were fascinated for a day or two, but quickly lost interest as the eggs just seemed to become another adornment in the wreath. They were not intrigued by the gestation period the way I was. Throughout the spring, I looked out the small window of the door, down into the nest, with the excitement of a toddler on Christmas Eve. I placed a step stool against the inside of the door and checked periodically on the egg inhabitants. The mornings were simply a chance to make sure all the eggs were still there, but the evenings afforded more interaction with the mama bird.

It became part of my nightly routine: put the dogs to bed, set up the coffee pot, check on the birds in the nest. At first, the mama could sense me staring down on her, and would fly away. But I quickly learned to position myself to the side of the window.  Once I mastered this, I could marvel at the mother bird’s determination to protect her offspring. Her head was on a swivel, moving side to side to ensure her babies were safe, and the porch light added a warmth that she seemed to welcome. After a minute or so, I would leave my perch and quietly walk to the comfort of my bed.

Then, one day in mid-June, I looked out the window in the early morning and found that there were no longer eggs, but a mass of fuzzy creatures, bizarre in their ugliness and shape. I laughed at my ignorance. Why would I assume the birds would hatch looking more like, well, birds? In addition, not all the eggs hatched. Someone told us that the one mother bird probably removed the other mother bird’s eggs from the nest. My first reaction to this was, how cruel, followed quickly by, this is nature’s way. And only three of the four blue eggs hatched–again, the way the natural world works.

The boys now had a newfound interest in the nest. I would catch them standing on the bench on our front step, peering down at the trio, trying to make out where one bird ended and another began. I watched them bring their friends over to spy on the latest stage of development.

As for me, I was somewhat put-off that the birds were so indistinguishable. Then one day, about a week after their birth, I noticed something that FullSizeRender (22)amazed me; each worm-like mass had a tiny yellow triangle towards its top. They’re beaks! I thought aloud. Again, I was surprised at my ignorance. Yes, Michael, birds have beaks. You remember kindergarten, right?

After that, I was hooked. I gazed down at the nest several times a day, watching these beaks turn into birds. I stared in wonder as each bird developed its head, focused its eyes, sprouted its wings. The wreath wriggled with constant movement, as the mama bird flew back and forth with food. I had gotten good at watching her flight patterns, and could see her occupying various branches on the pine tree near the front pathway. I even took to speaking with her. “It’s okay, mom. I’m not going to harm them.”

During those few weeks, I made several observations. There was an order to the three birds. The one towards the front was in charge.  He watched over the other two, he opened his wings first. The one in the middle followed suit, and the one towards the back seemed to develop more slowly and tentatively. Also, the perimeter of the nest was comprised of their waste–did the birds know to do this instinctively? And the mother bird visited the nest less often. I surmised that this was her way of getting her young to be more independent–forcing them to fly. However, she was never far away. I could spot her on various limbs in the trees nearby.

 

Metaphors abound in nature. One can find lessons and connections between nature and our human existence almost at every turn. Poets have mused about this for centuries. People learn to take comfort in the beauty–the daffodils that sprout after an interminable winter, the caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly, and understanding in the tragedy–the thousands of sea creatures that feed off a dead whale’s carcass, the need for predators to stalk their prey in order to survive. Indeed, nature is humanity’s greatest classroom. Yet, we seem to ignore it in our day-to-day lives. It takes a tremendous effort to get us to notice things. To appreciate them. The arrival of this nest prompted me to rediscover the array of birds and wildlife that surround our home. We live in a beautiful area ensconced with trees, streams, a pond, walking trails. We are very fortunate. And, sometimes, we look up from our phone screens long enough to spy the blue heron’s wingspan as he ascends into the sky, the camouflaged frog springing in the tall grass, the design on the turtle’s back who has appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, after a summer storm. Nature has its reminders, its lessons, yet there are perhaps too many for us to fully appreciate. So, when the world offers you a nest of birds–a literal bird’s eye view, one can fully embrace the mundane miracles that surround us.

FullSizeRender (23)As the birds became more active, so, too, did the interest from our dogs. Huckleberry, a hound rescue, and Rosie, a black Lab, started to spend more time near the front door. When Huck finally put his paws on the door and started clawing towards the wreath, we knew it was time to cordon off the front entrance. I set up a makeshift barrier of old puppy gates, and moved the bench. We had stopped using the front door months ago, so that was no hassle. Yet, the dogs’ newfound discovery made us worry. The three birds had come so far, we didn’t want to now be responsible for their demise.

And just as I learned to talk to the mother, I did so with her three young. “Good morning! How was your night? It’s okay. You’re safe.” My greeting was met with a frightened fluttering of wings and a bobbing of heads. Their reactions made me realize they were almost ready to leave the nest. These birds were now full-fledged. It was time to fly.

I watched one hot morning as the first bird–the front bird–moved up the wreath and attempted to flap his way out into the world. “Come on buddy. You can do it.” And he did. He teetered. He dipped. But then, he flew. High enough to disappear into the trees, joining his mother, I hoped. “Goodbye!” I called after him. “Good luck!”

The second bird was gone by sundown. No one watched her departure, but we were confident she was somewhere right above us with her family. The last bird, the tentative one, was struggling. Whereas the other two became emboldened with each passing day, this creature remained stagnant.

“Do you think she’s okay?” my wife asked at dinner that night.

“Yeah. It just takes some longer than others. She just needs a little more time to gain confidence.” Again, I could not help but think of the parallels between animals and humans. Everyone is different. All in due course.

The next day, she was still there. But she had managed to climb out of the nest and up into the faux leaves of the wreath. When I approached to check on her, she seemed skittish and panicky. “You can do it,” I said. But I had my doubts. I cursed the notion of survival of the fittest. Two out of three isn’t bad, but it doesn’t seem fair. Nature has a way–this now refrain popped into my head, and I wasn’t certain if I thought of this as a positive or a negative. A way of fulfilling or eliminating. Time would tell.

When I checked at bedtime, she was still there. Alone. “You can do it,” I whispered.

In the morning, I forgot about the nest until I was leaving to drive the boys to camp.

“Guys, shhh. I want to check on the bird,” I said in a loud whisper.

“I’ll do it,” said Hayden (10). He hopped on the bench. “Dad, it’s empty!”

“She may be hiding up inside the wreath,” I said, moving nearer to investigate. After a closer look, I was confident. “She’s gone,” I shouted. “She made it! I was worried about her,” I finally admitted.

As we walked away towards the car, the two dogs came bouncing around the house, hoping to join us for the ride. This had started to become part of our morning routine. But something else had gotten their attention in the Pachysandra that bordered our front path.

“What’s Rosie doing?” asked Owen (11).

“She’s after something,” I said, unaware.

“Oh, no!” yelled Hayden. “The bird!”

“Rosie, NO!” I screamed.

Confused, she looked up, with tiny feathers protruding from her closed mouth.

“Drop,” I hollered. “Rosie, drop!”

Rosie obeyed and a little creature tumbled out. It seemed to take a moment to regain form. But there, on the path, was the bird.

“Bad dog!” Hayden yelled. Tears had instantly shot into his eyes once he realized the worst, and Owen was in the driveway crying to himself.

“Is she dead?” Owen asked.

“No,” I said. “She’s just scared. Labs are retrievers. They have soft mouths.” I was grasping at hope here, not sure if I was making that up or not. “Get the dogs inside.”

While the boys did as I asked, the bird zigzagged her way under a bush. “Aww, birdy. Sorry about that. Are you okay?” She seemed weak, yet I wanted to be optimistic. I took the gates from the front door, and now made a barrier around the bush. If she did not progress by nightfall, she would probably die, I thought.

The ride to camp was somber. The boys stifled their tears, and I defended their canine sibling.

“Guys, Rosie was just doing what she was supposed to do. Dogs sniff out other creatures. Labs are hunting dogs. So are hounds. It’s in their nature.” Then I attempted to convey that birds, like all beings, need to quickly adapt or they will not survive, but as I began this line of thinking, both boys looked more distraught.

“Do you think she’ll live,” Owen asked.

“I do. I do,” I said. And I almost believed it.

“Should you move her?” asked Hayden.

“I might,” I said, but I really didn’t want to. “Well see.”

We pass a dead raccoon in the middle of the highway. “Whoa! Look at that.” Owen says, matter-of-factly.

It’s funny, I think. Roadkill doesn’t affect us. The bird that flew into our widow and died last month didn’t bring us to tears. We squash mosquitoes with glee. We fish in our pond. But certain lives affect us more. When you watch something’s life from creation to independence, you feel a connection, a bond. As a family, we felt this bond with these birds, on our tiny thumbprint of land that we call ours.

When I got home, I saw that she was tucked under the bush, up against the house. Her head was hidden in her wing. Is she giving up? I wondered. 

I kept the dogs away from this area and went about some yard work. She remained in her spot.

Before I went to pick up the boys that afternoon, I discovered her near the edge of the path. I was excited for her. “Good job. That’s it. You can do it.”

As soon as they get in the car at pick up, I give them a report. “Boys, she moved away from the house. She might even be gone when we get home.”

“If she’s not, you’re gonna have to move her,” said Owen.

“Okay! I’ll move her if she’s still there,” I said begrudgingly.

Once home, Hayden bolted up the driveway to check on our friend. “Dad, she’s still here. You’re gonna have to move her.”

“Okay. Okay,” I said. You’re the adult, Michael. They’re watching you.

With a surprising grace, I bent down and gingerly cupped the tiny bird in my hand. She was so light. So soft. The boys looked on suspiciously.

“I got her, guys. Don’t worry.”

I walked over to the shaded edge of our property where the dogs could not access. I found a spot hidden among the tall perennials. The grace I had moments ago was gone. Although my hand was inches from the ground, her landing was not soft. I had hoped she would flutter more when I opened my palm. There was little movement, and she fell over as I placed her down on the top of the small slope near the trees. I propped her up, but she was listless.

“Dammit,” I muttered, but the boys had already gone inside to get out of the June heat.

“Is she okay?” one asked.

“Yep,” I lied. “I’m just going to bring her some water. Come have your snack.”

By the time I came out with her water, minutes later, she was slumped over, dead.

“Shit!” I said, then I looked up apologetically, imagining her mother witnessing this scene from one of the many familiar branches she had stood upon these last few months. “I’m sorry,” I said to the trees, “I tried.”

That was a Friday. We were going to the beach for the weekend, and before we left, I checked on the bird one more time and pretended she was fine. I lied to the boys and told them she was doing well. They did not seem eager to check on her. Perhaps they did not want to confirm their doubts. By the time we came home Sunday, there was no trace of her. It was probably a nice surprise for the cat next door, or one of the many creatures that visit our property unbeknownst to us.

FullSizeRender (25)Weeks later, this small death has remained on my mind. A silly little bird, and I can’t seem to shake it. We live in a world where the atrocities dominate our attention. Murder, hate, destruction is at every turn. I’m still reeling from the horrific events at the nightclub in Orlando, and there have been at least five monstrous acts since then. My boys are still quite naive. We try to address concerns they may have, but we don’t actively seek current events to teach them how wicked the world can be. If they ask, we’ll answer, but they’ve made it into double-digits pretty unscathed.

I was so moved by the reaction of the boys when they discovered Rosie with the bird. They were crying before I could even piece together what had happened. I was relieved that their sadness was so palpable–honest and pure. And, oddly, I am jealous. In middle-age, I can barely shed a tear when moved to do so. I did not cry when I found the bird dead. Nor, did I cry over the recent loss of one of my favorite neighbors, or the many experiences that are worthy of tears–many tears. Is it human nature to become numb? Do our senses dull to the point where what was once tragic is now merely trite?

In the end, I guess the realization is I want to feel more, react more, notice more. I am humbled that raising these boys has allowed me to see things fromFullSizeRender (24) other, younger, perspectives. To grapple with innocence and naiveté in all its forms. To assist them as they navigate the truths of the natural world–death is a part of life. Nature takes its course.

Nature has a way. Everyday, creatures are born and they die. Beings thrive or succumb. Innocence is preserved or abandoned. Mothers and fathers do their best to protect and empower. And nature teaches us all the while. For those who are willing to look, to watch, to wonder.

 

Dying to tell you…

I spent Saturday night at my brother’s house with family and friends. His house is always lively, where anyone is welcome, where shouts of playing and laughter echo through the halls–and I’m just talking about the grown-ups. It was a great time, and always fun to catch up with friends new and old.

My mom was there, and also enjoys reminiscing with our friends– the people she watched grow from boys and girls into men and women. One of my brother’s friends, Dom, was regaling us with stories of my dad, and the years disappeared as he recounted spending weekends at our house as a teenager.

As we were leaving, my mom gave Dom a big kiss and said, “Be sure to come to my funeral, Dom?” “Mrs. Trainer!” he replied, shocked, “I’ll see you again.” “I’m only teasing,” she said.  He hugged her tightly. “Well, don’t talk like that!”

But talk like that she does. Daily.

I have been preparing for my mom’s death for as long as I can remember. My mother has always been fixated on death–hers and others. I know the reasons–a father dying in front of her at five; an only child due to her mother’s numerous still-borns.

Sure, I understand why. But that didn’t help my youthful angst. Angst that lie with me in bed each night after kissing my mother and saying, “I love you. See you in the morning.” And her reply: “God willing.” Angst that rode next to me in the passenger seat as I drove to places with my mother’s directions, explained in tragic landmarks: “Go up to the road where that little boy was killed on his bike, and then turn right at the funeral home where Uncle Jimmy was laid out…” Angst that stayed with me for decades–each day a body count from the news she watches, each week a report as to how many people we know–or I do not know, as is often the case–who are sick and dying.

Yet, in my later years, I do not meet her comments with anger or angst. I laugh. And I laughed when she said this to Dom in the kitchen. My mom, the Gram Reaper.

My wife was indoctrinated into my mother’s morbid ways early in our marriage. During that first year, my mom came to our house one Saturday afternoon with coffee and a garment bag. As she handed the bag to Pam, she announced,”This is my funeral dress, hon. I want you to be in charge of it.” Pam laughed and cried at the same moment. I just shook my head and smiled. Yet, that dress has hung in my wife’s closet for over 13 years–it has moved two times with us. Pam has her job.

At school, the teachers marvel when I mention the various paraphernalia I receive from my mom: a handful of “Living Wills” to distribute to my friends; the deed to her cemetery plot; her living will. And most recently, the letter announcing she can officially have her funeral mass at the Villa where she resides in an apartment building run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. “Here you go!” she announces one night while over for dinner, thrusting it towards me with the gusto of a high school senior who has just been accepted to college. “Now, I just need to make a copy for everyone else.” “Why?” I ask. “You didn’t even need to give me a copy. I’m sure Sister would tell me when the time comes.” “I just thought you should have it.” Translation–you may not have thought about my death in the past few days, and I didn’t want you to forget!

If there is one thing that is unforgettable about my mom, it is her passion for all things tragic. She has had her share, as have I, as have all of us. But the funny thing is, the more I have embraced my mom’s sense of the tragic, the more I have made it my job to emphasize the comic. “You’re going to outlive us all!” I say when she hands me the latest item for her funeral. And she just might. She’s beaten both breast and ovarian cancer. But I know that does not comfort her. There’s no fun in dying if no one’s there to mourn.

Last year, after reading the book This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper–a book about a dysfunctional family sitting Shiva–I had an epiphany. I called my mom the next day. “Mom, I have a great idea for your funeral.” “What is it?” she said, excited I had started to take a genuine interest. “Well, you know how Jewish people sit Shiva for seven nights?” “Yeah.” “Well, to eliminate any drama, why don’t each of us take a night–each of your seven kids could have a night where they get to sit with you, and their friends can come and pay their respects. And other relatives can come whenever they like.” “There’s a thought,”she said, but I got the feeling it allowed for too little drama and not nearly enough pageantry. It sounded like the right approach to me, though.

3410814846_56ba5d0c22_n

In the car today, just the two of us, we chat about my brother’s party. “Isn’t Dom funny,” she says, “the way he remembers all those things about being at our house?” “He’s a riot,” I say. “It was good to see him.” Then the conversation quickly turns to death. She begins, “You know, we had a guy in this week from Holy Sepulchre Cemetery–a real young guy, handsome, to talk about planning our funeral costs.” “I know, you told me already. The one Sister had a crush on.” She laughs. “Guess how much less it is to get cremated than buried?” “How much?” “He said seven-hundred dollars.” (I can’t tell if that’s good or bad.) “Oh!” I say, “Are you going to be cremated?” “I don’t know.” Then she launches into a story about someone who buried a box of their relatives ashes on top of someone else’s grave. “Didn’t cost them a thing,” she says. I try to comprehend this logic. “What happens if they have to bury someone else in that grave?” I ask. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says, now wondering.

“So, if you get buried, who will you be with?” I ask, although I should know. The answer comes without pause: “Pop [her stepdad], Daddy, and Phil.” Phil is a neighbor who died in his thirties–long story on how he got to be in the family plot. “Oh, God!” I say. “You can’t be buried with those three–you’ll never rest in peace. That settles it–you’re being cremated.”

We laugh. My mom and I laugh. It may sound like a weird approach to others, but that’s what we do. It’s certainly what I do. And in a strange way it makes me feel closer to her. I don’t shut down when she brings up this sorrowful topic. I no longer yell at her out of fear and confusion. I just acknowledge it, and then try to see it from a lighter perspective. It helps.

As we drive, I feel this sense of satisfaction. My mom and I driving around on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in November.

I try to change the subject so she’s not thinking of her impending demise too much. “So,” I say, “do you have any funerals this week?”

 

Photo: Courtesy of Steve Hardy, flickr.com

 

The Last Kiss of Summer

hardyboys-4 One of the first times I felt the painful sting of death occurred the night of  October 1, 1978. I had just celebrated a birthday days before, and my ninth year was ushered in by tragedy. Her name was Jamie, a beautiful young woman who had her whole life ahead of her. She was an artist and she loved the beach. I had known her for all of 15 minutes, including commercials. You see, Jamie was engaged to be married to one of my closest childhood friends, Joe Hardy. Yes, the season premier of The Hardy Boys dealt me quite a crushing blow. That Sunday night, my world shattered before prime time.

zombiestookmybike+rolled+image+what+I+got+last+christmas+_d7ded52666da932739d4ef48c9abdf52I was too young to see the warning signs: For one, the title of the episode — “The Last Kiss of Summer.” Plus, Jamie never appeared in season 2, yet, here she was in the season 3 opener, already the better half of one half of the Hardy Boys. And the telltale sign of all– Joe and Jamie opened the episode with a car scene–lovingly looking over at each other–a harbinger of doom in TV land. Any time there is a driving scene, there will be an accident. But the creators of The Hardy Boys knew how to stretch the drama. The death scene happened the second time the couple were in the car together–on the way from their wedding rehearsal, no less. Jamie and Joe were cruising down the coastal highway in a convertible, when the evil Jocco and his girl were drunkenly swerving all over the road. Jamie wasn’t the only casualty in that episode; something died inside of me that night.

 

I could not believe my eyes. How could the world be this cruel? How could two people so good looking and83d3e16352d1b39916bdd4b5c895e25a nice, with perfectly feathered hair, suffer such a tragic fate? My goal in life was to BE Joe Hardy (Shaun Cassidy)– never Frank (Parker Stevenson).  Everyone wanted to be Joe. Solving mysteries, going on adventures, helping his brother and dad fight crime. I even thought he selected the perfect partner for us. Jamie was drop-dead gorgeous, wore a bikini like it was her second skin, and seemed like she’d never said an unkind word in her whole life.  How could I go to school the next day? There was a death–and I needed time. So did the Hardy Boys, apparently–the episode was a two-parter.

That whole week I was haunted by images of the happy couple. I searched for the girl in the third grade who was most like Jamie–I wanted to know who I was marrying. But then fear would strike me. What if I found my true love and she was taken from me? The thought was too much to bear. My sadness overwhelmed me.

I wanted to be alone when I walked home from school. The warmer days of Fall allowed me to linger. I comforted myself by trying to sing the song that was played and replayed throughout the episode: “If” by the kings of seventies soft rock, Bread. Freakin’ Bread man, can you dig?

“If a picture paints a thousand words then why can’t I paint you? The words I’ll never know, the you I’ve come to know. If a man could be two places at one time, I’d be with you, tomorrow and today, beside you all the way.” PAUSE. Please note: these lyrics were written from memory. These were the words I sang in the hopes of recreating the emotion I felt for Joe, for Jamie, for me! I made up words to fill the gaps. Let’s remember, I couldn’t Google the song. Hell, I didn’t even know it was sung by Bread til I was in college and ordered The Best of Bread as one of my free cassettes when I signed up for a Columbia House membership–yeah, Columbia House–Google it.

I sang that song for the next five years, walking to and from grade school. It was almost Pavlovian–when I was by myself, walking up the hill from St. John of the Cross, the moment my foot hit the sidewalk at the corner of Thomson and Woodland, Bread would images (5)come out of my mouth. “And when my love for life is running dry, you’d come and pour yourself on me.” You’d love me so much–yes, you Jamie–that you’d come and pour yourself on me. Your. Own. Self.

And maybe you haven’t picked up on this, but the song tie-in is genius because it sings about painting a picture and Jamie–soon-to-be-but-never-will-Hardy WAS a painter. Do you see the nuances laden in this episode? No wonder it was on at seven o’clock eastern time–that’s when educated people settled down for a stretch of Sunday night television.

The following week’s episode was anti-climactic for me. Joe mourned. Frank swam with sharks. And the evil Jocco got his comeuppance. But Jamie was gone from our lives forever. The end of part 2, however, left us with a cheap ploy–Joe spied a girl on the beach who he thinks is Jamie. He starts running towards her white bikini, and I believed. For the length of a Hamburger Helper commercial, I believed that Jamie was still alive. That it was all a sick joke, a horrible dream. But when Joe grabbed her slender arm and she turned around, it was NOT Jamie. Just another pretty Southern California blonde. She looked at Joe eagerly, flattered by his attention. Yet, he was not ready to move on. Eventually, though, he would. I’m glad one of us was able to.

 

 

 

Sandy Hook: One Year Later

I wrote this piece last year, a few days after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As I re-read it today, in honor of its one year mark, my emotions still feel pretty raw. Not enough has changed in our culture, but I try to be hopeful. In the end, hope is all we have.

So, it is in that spirit of hope that I ask you to visit the following site: Sandy Hook Promise . There, you will find the inspiring mission of the parents, family, and friends of Sandy Hook Elementary who refuse to just be the latest victims of gun violence and are fighting for change–real change within our country. It’s a powerful approach, as they are working towards sensible solutions, not more polarization of citizens in regard to gun control. I urge you to check it out, sign the pledge promise, and if you can, donate a few dollars. I know money may be tight, I know everyone seems to want donations from you, but we need to band together to effect real change. If you do decide to donate, perhaps choose the $26 option–one dollar for each person who lost their lives that day. Thank you for reading this.

The World’s Greatest: An AMERICAN Tragedy

I am a mountain
I am a tall tree
Oh, I am a swift wind
Sweepin’ the country
I am a river
Down in the valley
Oh, I am a vision
And I can see clearly
If anybody asks you who I am
Just stand up tall, look ’em in the face and say

[Chorus]
I’m that star up in the sky
I’m that mountain peak up high
Hey, I made it
I’m the world’s greatest
And I’m that little bit of hope
When my back’s against the ropes
I can feel it, 
I’m the world’s greatest

–from  The World’s Greatest, By: R. Kelly

Tears sting my eyes, as these lyrics blare through my iPod. I am out for a run on this cold, damp Sunday morning. I begin to weep openly–the emotion becoming too much. I can’t stop thinking about those kids. The innocent victims of another horrific school shooting. This is not the kind of music that I run to, usually. The song happens to be on my iPod because I downloaded it last year for my boys, who were performing it in a talent show at school. We played it every night for about two weeks. As I run, the lyrics take me back to watching them onstage with several dozen other elementary school children, scared and nervous as they performed in the dark auditorium for beaming moms, dads, and other family members. Then, my mind immediately shifts to the school children at Sandy Hook Elementary–the ones who experienced such a different form of fear and nervousness. The ones who lost their lives. The ones who lived– who will never be the same. I cry because none of us will ever be the same.

I am bawling my eyes out as I run on the side of a very busy road, and I don’t care how I look. I am so sad. And this song is making my grief spew forth because the lyrics are so beautiful. The words remind me of a comforting poem that  is often shared at funerals, by a woman named Mary Frye: Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there; I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain… The song now comforts me in that way. I take solace in the fact that these gentle souls, and the adults who lost their lives protecting them, are now a part of a greater good, a larger entity.  Their spirits will live on in all that is beautiful and innocent, like them: a twinkling star, a majestic vista.  They cannot have died in vain.

I have been pretty emotional all weekend. I agree with many things I’ve read on Facebook about not giving this gunman the notoriety our society seems to bestow on the madman du jour. I am so fed up with all of the violence. I am embarrassed to admit that I paid little attention to one of the latest shootings at a U.S. mall. Like many, I’ve grown numb, tired. But this horror, this living nightmare, may be the wake up call this country needs. All weekend I keep staring at my sons, who are both around the victims’ ages. I feel helpless that I cannot shield them from the ugliness of our world. On Friday, as I watched them get off the school bus, wearing Santa hats no less, I was stung by the fact that 20 parents would no longer be greeting their children off the bus. They will never come home again. The Santa hats underscored my boys’ innocence. I thought how, just yesterday, I was hopeful their belief in Santa would last one more year, and now I am concerned that their belief in humanity will last one more year. How could I even begin to explain this event? They know nothing of what occurred in Connecticut–how long can that last? I feel ashamed for even thinking this way when others have no child to explain anything to anymore.

I hit repeat on my iPod. I want to hear this song again. I want to cry my eyes out for all of the victims and their families; I want to wallow in this pity I feel for all of us, for our country. I hear the echo of the singer saying “The world’s greatest…the world’s greatest.” I think about that phrase. I think how Newtown, Connecticut has witnessed the world’s greatest–the greatest examples of heroism, selflessness, and loss of innocence. I think of this land of ours, and how we are supposed to be the world’s greatest–and we are at so many things–including killing. I’m sure you’ve seen the stats by now. The magazine Mother Jones reports 61 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Fifteen out of 25 mass shootings of the last 50 years occurred in the US–the next country in the line up has two. TWO! Why are we such a violent country? Why are we so much more violent in our domestic lives than other countries. The gun control debate is raging with sound and fury now. Mental illness is also being talked about with deserved attention. One of my burning questions: Why does it seem we are more mentally ill than other countries? Why do these gunmen aim at the heart of our Nation–our innocent school children? Is this the price of freedom? How many more schools need to be ambushed before we begin meaningful dialogue and real change?

Speaking of schools, another reason I feel so emotional is because I am a teacher. I read the stories of bravery from these others in my profession, and I am humbled beyond measure. I picture myself trying to hide my students and fend off an attacker–or die trying. Could I be so brave? I pray to God, yes. Sadly, since Columbine, we’ve all become jaded. And teachers have an ever-growing fear. I know it scares me. My teaching career has spanned the spate of school shootings. As a result,  I saved my son’s hand-print from an art project in preschool in my wallet–so that if our school was ever attacked, I would have his hand to hold in the end. I have also saved special messages from the boys on my phone, so if I ever think I won’t be coming home, perhaps their sweet voices would comfort me as I prepared for whatever was in store. Why the hell would I think like that? Why? Because too many schools have been subject to such terror. I teach in a wonderful school, in a beautiful town, with the most amazing kids. Many of these tragedies have occurred in similar settings. And as the death toll in schools across the country continues to rise I pray, “Let this one will be the last.”

Just this week, I had the chance to visit my son’s second grade classroom to talk to the children about Christmas. It’s a public school, and this was part of their Social Studies unit–including all of the holidays we celebrate this time of year. My first observation when I arrived at school–one I’ve had numerous times–was the sad commentary of having to be buzzed in via intercom. A sign reads: “Please stand right here when speaking into the console so camera can see you.” Every time I’m buzzed in, I feel like I am visiting a prison. Yet, once inside  I see the joy, I hear the laughter of the children, and I notice all of the incredible work being displayed. It is a happy place. It is a place of energy and enthusiasm. I’m glad my kids can go to such a school. That afternoon, I enjoyed sharing my knowledge of the Nativity with the kids, and I told them what I say to my own students: “I love teaching in a public school because we are all so different, and we can teach each other about our differences. We are different, and yet we are the same.” They understood.

And I guess that’s why I am writing this blog entry: I want to understand. Yet, as I get older, as I seek more wisdom, I realize that there are so many things beyond my understanding. And I know that is how life works. I think of how much I’ve changed in the past decade, as a husband, as a father, as a man. I am the least religious I have ever been (16 years of Catholic school), yet I am the most spiritual, the most peaceful I’ve ever been. I don’t know if I believe in a God the way I was raised to believe in him. I hope there is a heaven. I hope that there is a place where people go where all of this makes more sense. Here is the picture that stirred my thoughts on this concept of religion yesterday. I came upon it online. The caption was in honor of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary:

“We can’t help but think this is what heaven looked like today.”

heaven

Credit: painting by John Lautermilch

If there is a heaven, then these sweet children and their protectors are certainly there. Now if only they could help those of us on Earth who are left trying to make a better way from all this. Tonight, I pray to them for strength. Strength for all of us.

The Road to Hell, Part Two

Owen and I stared out towards the road. There was no sign of Hayden. I was trying to determine where he had hidden–I did not feel like walking around the entire building. I was tired of playing Hayden’s game and losing.

We walked to the car and got in. My new car. Ha! It could have been a soap box for all I cared now. The cookie mess in the back didn’t matter now. When your world is about to crumble, nothing matters. NO thing.

My reactions felt surreal. Strange. I was not mad. I was not even scared. I was numb. My heart did not race. I did not sweat. I simply felt like I was hanging in the balance. A minute ticked away. Then another. Surely, if Hayden was hiding he would have come out by now. But what if I drove away and he was left here? What if he darted out to the road when he saw my car leaving? I did not want to be in charge anymore. I wanted someone else to take over.

“Dad, are we going to leave him here?” Owen asked.

“NO!”

“Dad, where is he?”

The anger was back. “I don’t know, Owen. I’m here with you. I don’t know where Hayden is.” I felt bad for saying this, but I was at a loss.

WE got out of the car, and walked towards the road. It was useless. The place was hidden with large pine trees.

“HAYDEN!” I screamed. “HAYYYYYYYDENNNNN!”

Owen and I walked around the building. With every turn we made, part of me expected to find him. To see his devilish grin. To hear his high-pitched laugh.

An elderly couple was strolling the grounds, looking at us oddly. I was in no mood to explain what we were doing. They tried to make small talk. I pretended to not hear them.

We circled the building, and still no sign of Hayden. I contemplated calling 9-1-1. The panic started to rise in me. How did things get out of my control so quickly? I waited to hear the screeching of brakes on the road, or the whir of an ambulance siren, or the scream of a driver who had just hit a little boy. My boy.

And the moments stretched out infinitely. The whole thing transpired over ten minutes, but it felt like hours. And within each minute, my mind toyed with me. My thoughts became desperate:

Well, here it is. The tragedy that will define the rest of your existence.

Why do people have kids? Why did I think I could do this job? I’m not good at it. I’m not the right man for it.

We bring these creatures into the world and we fool ourselves into thinking we are in charge, yet we have no control. They are their own keepers, we just bear witness. Yet, from the moment they enter this world, our primary goal is to keep them alive. We hover and they push us away. Hover/Push…

I thought about human nature, and our inclination to judge others. I thought about how I used to read stories and judge. How could someone forget their child in a car? Well, if you’ve ever been a sleep-deprived parent, then you know. How could a child just disappear? It happens. IT HAPPENS. It happened to me moments ago. When you become a parent, you stop asking how something could happen.

“Get back in the car, Owen. We have to go home.”

“He didn’t walk home, did he, Dad?”

My answer was silent.

I sped home, conscious of the hazards that lined the road. The uneven shoulder. The horrible intersection. The speeding MACK Trucks. I expected to see a crumpled mass of orange. We passed the cemetery, and I felt the tombstones looking at me–“We know,” they said. “We know what it feels like to leave that world.”

It took little time to get home, but when I pulled in the driveway, I did not want to get out of the car. If he’s not here, my life is over. If he’s not here, I am a terrible parent. If he’s not here, I will lose my shit and just run away and hide. I can’t do this job. I can’t.

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

There is a scene in the movie House of Sand and Fog where Ben Kingsley‘s character charges up the steps of a building, knowing that his son is dead, but hoping beyond hope he’s not. As he races to find out, he repeats “I want only for my son. I want only for my son.” I saw that film before I had children, yet the scene haunted me for days. It haunts me still. I fear, like every parent fears, that one day I will lose my child. I think of those I know who have faced this unbearable pain, and I wonder if I could do so. I shudder to think.

I turn the door knob and am met by quiet. Owen is on my heels. “Hayden?” My heart pauses.

“Yeah?” he answers.

“Did you walk home?”

“Yeah,” he says, matter-of-factly.

There are tears. Many from Owen and not nearly enough from Hayden, as far as I’m concerned. I want to hug him, but I am afraid I will throttle him. I send him to his room and add on to his punishment from earlier. I yell at him, A LOT. And the one thing I keep repeating is “Why would you do that?” I did not give him room to answer.

I know why. Now, at least. He did it because he’s seven! He has little concept of danger and consequences and death. But that answer has been small consolation for me since.

Did you ever date someone you cared about–loved even–and then they do something so out of the ordinary and bizarre that you become completely freaked out by them and end the relationship soon after? I have. And that’s how I’ve felt these past few days: Freaked out. But you can’t break up with your child. This union is for better or worse, for richer or poorer…

Each day, though, I feel a little more normal. The amount of times I replay his walk home in my mind gets fewer. I have finally stopped hearing the screech of brakes and a thud in my mind. Last night, at dinner, when we were talking about how many more days he has “without screen” I finally got up the nerve to ask him where he crossed the street–it took me five days to get up the courage to ask that question.

But I am changed. This event changed me. And my sadness feels profound, because I think it marks the beginning of many more betrayals that are inherent in the parent/child relationship. This daring walk home marks the first of many possible betrayals: There will be other dangerous jaunts: on foot, bike, skateboard, and eventually, car. There will be parties where he’ll have to confront drinking and drugs. There will be lies about curfew and who he was with. There will be many times I’ll want him to go in one direction, and he’ll defy me and go another.

But for now, I am trying to appreciate the fact that my life did not turn upside down that day. I looked down the road to Hell, but thankfully turned off before I arrived there. I realize other obstacles await, and someday tragedy may strike. I hope I’ll be better prepared, but I doubt it. That’s the constant reminder a parent must face. There is very little in my control. Too damn little.

EPILOGUE

The day after Hayden’s long walk home, I had to take our puppy, Rosie, to the vet. She threw up all over my front seat when we were seconds from arriving home. I had had the new car exactly one week.

The Road to Hell

There is so much more to this parenting thing than anyone expects, and so often I feel inferior at the job.

Something horrible happened this week that made my world shift. In the end, it was of little consequence, but it has had a profound effect on me. The experience made me sad–I feel powerless and afraid. And I almost didn’t write about it. Yet, after thinking some more, I realized that I can’t just write about things that are safe, or that I can poke fun of, or that happened a long time ago. If I did not write about this, I would feel like a phony. I remember reading something from the early stages of blogging about true writers write about stuff that is hard to face. I knew I needed to process this in writing. I can’t help it. I’m a writer.

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

It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon. I was lying in the grass after a run, waiting for the boys’ bus to pull up. I gazed into the sky and contemplated the possibilities of this world. As a kid, I loved to look at clouds, and as an adult I try to do so from time to time. I heard the bus at the street corner, and the boys found me on the lawn.

“Dad, what are you doing here?” asked Owen (8).

“Just looking at the clouds,” I said, as if I did it everyday.

They both made motions to go inside, so I pleaded, “Sit here with me a minute. Relax. It’s a beautiful day.” They dropped their back packs and lied down next to me. Hayden (7) placed his head on my chest, and we all took in the view. It felt grand.

“Guys, I need to ask you a favor?” I said.

“What?” they replied in unison.

“I want us to go up the street and visit my friend’s husband.”

I explained to them that someone I knew was staying at the assisted living home up the street. He needed to be under medical care while his wife was travelling.  I knew she would appreciate us checking in on him. Besides, I want my sons to know what it’s like to be of service to others.

“So, we’ll have a snack and then head up there, okay?” I asked.

“Okay,” they each said. I was impressed because there was no whining or sulking. Plus, they each obliged me with a drawing for Mr. Jim.  Pictures of some leaves and trees with “Happy Fall” in their best penmanship. I placed their pictures beside a package of frosted cookies I had for him.

“Who are they for?” asked Hayden.

“Mr. Jim,” I said.

“I want one,” he asked–a whine creeping in to his tone.

“Buddy, these are for our friend. We have lots of treats, but I bought these special for him. You can have something else–here how about these cookies?” I offered him some others from the pantry.

Hayden began his moan-and-dance, “Uhnnnnnn. I WANT ONE OF THOSE!”

“Well, sorry, you can’t have one.”

I placed the pictures and cookies in a bag and put them in the car. As I went back inside for the boys, I noticed they had helped themselves to the other cookies from the pantry. Playfully, I asked, “Did you guys eat these?”

“Yeah,” said Hayden. “We each had two!”

“Fine with me. You deserve two for being so good about coming with me. Now get in the car, we’re leaving.”

I put the dogs in the house and started to lock up. Owen was in the driveway. He looked nervous. “Hayden ate one of the special cookies, Dad.”

I swung the car door open, and there he was, shoving a cookie in his mouth, with crumbs and icing all over my brand new car. I had just gotten a pre-owned Acura a week ago. It’s a 2013 and the nicest car I’ve ever had. I was incensed. “Hayden!” I grabbed him by the arm.  “I can’t believe you! You knew these cookies were…and all over my…get out…and up to your room…no dessert for a week…” I was so angry. Why couldn’t he leave well enough alone? Why weren’t the other cookies enough? Why was it so hard to do something nice for someone else? Why do I care so much about everything?

I calmed down pretty quickly, but the edge was still there. I made him come down, repeated most of my rant in a quieter tone, and we drove to Sunrise Assisted Living. “Wow guys, this is so close to our house. If there were sidewalks on this road, we could’ve walked,” I said lamely, trying to act cheery even though everyone was quite miserable now. Sunrise is a pretty building complex. It strives for a Southern Gothic charm– rocking chairs adorn wide porches around the front of the building, and white carved moldings decorate the railings. The boys had never been to an “Old folks” home–and it had been quite some time for me, too. When we got out, Hayden was still fuming at me, and I was trying to ignore him. He walked at a snail’s pace and wore his big frown like it was his job–sometimes, I think it is. “Hayden, you better be nice when we get in there. Do not make this worse on yourself.”

I walked slowly so he could catch up, and he did. We stepped inside the grand entrance way. There was a great deal of activity. Apparently, it was BINGO hour, and groups of residents seemed to populate every corner of the place. It was lively and chaotic, and depressing. I could tell the boys were a bit nervous. A woman with a matted wig marched back and forth nervously, as if she were trying to wear out the carpet. Another woman at the counter was complaining to the receptionist about how they hide her lighter from her. “I feel like a sixteen year old girl again. Every time I want a damn cigarette, I have to ask permission.” The boys were wide-eyed. So much for “smoking kills”, I thought, looking at this woman who was in her eighties. Then, a kind lady in a wheel chair stole our attention. She had a gentle smile with a few thin strands of hair on her forehead, and she was without legs. I was proud of the boys for being so brave. Hayden reached for my hand, and tucked his safely into my palm. Good, I thought, he’s not mad at me now.

Owen looked at me and said, “Dad, there are so many more women here than men!” I decided not to explain to him the mortality rates of men versus women.

So, it’s true what they say about the road to Hell–it is paved with good intentions.  The gentleman we were trying to visit was not there. He was taken to the hospital the night before due to a fall. His wife did not know yet, as she was on her trip. I was glad she was able to continue her vacation, and her children were there to stay with her husband. The boys and I said goodbye to no one in particular, and made our way back outside. I tried to pawn off the cookies on the staff, but they refused them politely. I wanted the damn reminder of my anger out of sight. The stupid cookies were pointless now.

Back outside, we lingered. This had been quite an odyssey for us all, and so close to our house. The autumn breeze seemed to blow away some of our uneasiness. I didn’t feel mad anymore, just sad. Sad for the people in the home–they, too, were once young, many, I’m sure, with children of their own at their sides. Now, they all seemed lost, scared, confused. And sad for the boys. I used to hate it when my parents would make me interact with strangers, especially the sick and the elderly. It’s such a difficult lesson to teach children about. And sad for me–I just wanted to do something nice for somebody, and instead I felt angry and annoyed.

“We are really close to this place,” said Owen.

“I know,” said Hayden.

I welcomed the conversation. I wanted to get out of the doldrums and enjoy the rest of this beautiful day.

“You’re right, guys. It’s a shame this road is so busy. Maybe in a few years, you could walk up here.”

“Like when we’re twelve,” asked Owen.

“We’ll see,” I said.

“I’m going to walk home, now,” said Hayden.

Owen and I laughed. “Yeah, right,” I said. “You know that’s way too dangerous. Adults don’t even walk on this road.”

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

Our street is busy. It’s not a freeway, but it IS a throughway, where cars and trucks zip down as they hurry up to get where they need to go. There is barely a shoulder, there are no sidewalks–and it scares the shit out of me. Our house sits far enough back off the road, and our development is a dead-end. Yet Penllyn Pike is treacherous, and we have been instilling a fear in our boys about the deadly consequences of this road since they could crawl. To top it off, the only part of the street that offers a buffer from the road is an old cemetery that abuts a small church. Indeed, this road could have been the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel, Pet Cemetery.

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

We were half way to the car when Hayden announced this. “Come on, Hayd, don’t be silly,” I said, trying to stifle my annoyance with him from before. Now, if you’re a parent, you might try this move at times. The one where you just keep walking, not giving your child the satisfaction of taking them seriously. I do it with my dogs, too. If I walk in a particular direction, the dogs–and the kids–will usually follow. Usually. Now if you’re a kid, like my kids, you might play an annoying game where you think it’s cute (or funny, or evil) to “hide” on your parents. My boys are constantly hiding from us, daring us to find them, so they can “surprise” us. We shriek in fake astonishment, and they crack up. The end. Except, I’ve told the boys I don’t like this game when we’re out. We don’t hide in a parking lot, or near a road, or at the mall… I hate this hiding game. And that’s what I thought Hayden was doing when he began walking in the other direction. Hiding on me.

“Not funny, Hayden,” I said. But oddly, he had already disappeared. We’re talking seconds. He didn’t run. He simply creeped away–behind the building? On one of the porches? Back inside? He was just here. We were ten steps from the car, and now he’s gone. I saw not even a glimpse of his bright orange shirt and shorts.

“Come on, Hayden, lets go home.” I know how stubborn he can be, but if I wait him out, usually he flinches and shows me where he’s hiding. Usually.

“Dad, where is he?” Owen asked.

I could hear the panic rise in his voice. I tried to quell my own. “I don’t know, Owen. I DON’T KNOW!”

Lego Minifigures: The Funeral Series?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe boys and I have been spending a lot of time in the fields behind our house. The weather has been picture perfect, and our two new dogs, Huck and Rosie, are frolicking like young pups should. There are moments of pure joy–like when I watch the boys smiling as they race the dogs in the tall grass–and there are moments of pure annoyance–like when the boys want to play Simon Says. There’s so much I love about being a dad, but I really can’t stand children’s games: “Simon says, leave me alone!”

The highlight of these walks involves  little pockets of conversation we have between picking up dog poop and wiping away tears because someone got attacked by a thorny branch. Take this conversation from earlier in the week:

Owen (8): Dad, when I grow up, maybe I’ll work for the LEGO company and I’ll design LEGO lands and stuff.

Me (43 for one more day): That would be so cool, O.

Owen: Yeah, and, and like maybe I’ll be in charge of making LEGO minifigures, and I’ll make one of you.

My heart swells with pride. My boy wants to make a LEGO figure out of me! This is the epitome of love and respect coming from a third-grader.

Owen: And I’ll make him have glasses, and bald on top with a patch of hair under his chin like you have, and he’ll be holding a cup of coffee.

MY BOY. I can see the figure now, sitting on my desk, inspiring me as I write another one of my best-selling books. But wait, what’s this? I’m awakened from my daydream as I hear Hayden calling out something a few feet behind.

Hayden (7): Yeah, and we’ll bury the minifigure with you because you’ll be dead by then. Lego-Spooky-knight-

Me: NOOO!

I envision my gravesite, on a similarly beautiful afternoon, with mourners tossing in LEGO figures the way others would flowers.

Hayden: Yeah, you’ll be dead by then, right? Well, wait, when do people die again? Seventy? Eighty?

Me: Well, it depends. You have to take care of yourself so you can live longer. That’s why you shouldn’t smoke, or lecture-lecture-lecture, blah-blah-blah…

Owen: Yeah, Hayden, look at Pop‘s dad. He’s still alive and he’s 98! That means he took care of himself.

At this point I make some lame attempt to explain to the boys the theory of “everything in moderation.” I tell them how too much of anything is bad for them, and then I give some terrible analogy about ice cream. How they eat ice cream most nights, but if they ate an entire container every night, they’d probably be unhealthy. I mean this from a cholesterol standpoint, but I miss the mark.

Owen: Then you’d be so fat, you wouldn’t be able to leave the house.

Me: Well…here I try to defend overweight people but the moment is lost…

Owen: Dad, how DOES Santa get down the chimney? I mean, he’s fat. Really fat, right? How does he do it?

Lego_SantaAnd hear we go again–Santa! Everything comes back to Santa Claus.

Me: I think he uses a magic dust made out of snowflakes (Oh, God. am I encouraging drug use for them down the road? I wonder.)

Owen: I KNOW Santa’s real, because we get gifts on Christmas that are signed From: Santa.

He reaches out to hold my hand, wanting me to reassure him that Santa does exist. I think, yeah, third grade, that’s when the doubt reaches its highpoint. I hold his hand firmly. I watch his little brother bounce ahead of us with the dogs. I breathe in the fresh air and then it dawns on me that there are three topics my sons never tire of: LEGOS, Death, and Santa.

This conversation has become the most exhausting thing about my day. I go from being immortalized as a LEGO, to my untimely death, topped off by the reminder that Santa’s days are numbered, too.

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll walk the dogs after bedtime. Alone.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Image 1,2,and 4 courtesy of Johnson Cameraman

Image 3 courtesy of Lego-wiki

Car Talk

Car_toyI love the conversations that occur in the car with my sons. They can be so profound, enlightening and unpredictable. Here is a transcript of today’s car ride on the way to visit their grandmom, my mom.

Owen (8): This is a weird question, but how old were you when your dad died?

Me: That’s not a weird question at all. It’s a very good question, actually. Let’s see…I was twenty-four. (I am now 43).

Owen: How did he die?

Me: He had a disease called cancer. Some people die when they get cancer, and some people are able to get better. Grandmom had cancer.

Owen: And she beat it.

Me: And Pop had cancer.

Owen: Beat it.

Me: Even Aunt Lori had it.

Owen: And she beat it.

Hayden (6): But not your dad.

Me: No, he didn’t beat it.

There is silence for a minute. We pass a cemetery.

Hayden: Maybe your dad’s buried in there.

Me: No, I know where he’s buried. But I don’t visit cemeteries, I think.

Me: You know, some people believe that when you die, you come back to life again in another form. It’s called reincarnation.

Both boys: Cool/Awesome.

Owen: I want that to happen to me.

Me: You do, huh? Well, some believe that you come back as a being that you need to learn from. Like, if you were mean to a cat all the time, then you might come back to life as a cat.

Owen: I can’t wait til you come back as a cat, Hayden.

Me: No! You have to be REALLY mean, not just annoying. (But I was thinking the same thing, Owen:)

Hayden: Like, you have to throw heavy things at it.

Me: Yeah. And you don’t only come back in a negative way. You can come back as something different from you are now, like a girl, or a person who lives in another country, or a dog.

Hayden: I do NOT want to come back as a girl! (Suddenly) Oh! Oh! I want to come back as a banjo player.

Laughter. Lots of laughter.

Me: A banjo player, huh?

Hayden: Or a baby.

Owen: Maybe your dad has already come back as something.

Me: That would be cool, wouldn’t it? Like maybe he’s one of the birds that visits the bird feeder attached to our window, and he likes to come to the window and look in on us.

Owen: Or maybe he’s a tree. Dad, wouldn’t that be cool if we planted a tree and it was actually your dad?

Me: Whoa!

Hayden: But no grave stone! It wouldn’t be cool to have grave stone underneath the tree in our yard.

Owen: Yeah, if people have a grave stone in their yard, everyone will think they are weird.

We drive some more in silence.

Hayden: What if he came back as a building?

Owen: No, he can’t be a building.

Me: Buildings aren’t alive.

We pass a Dunkin Donuts where a man is pulling out of the lot smoking a cigarette.

Hayden: See that man smoking? That man’s coming back as a cigarette.

Owen: Yeah, so he can feel what it’s like to be set on fire.

Hayden: Yeah!

Me: Okay. We’re almost there, boys.

Goodnight, Sweet Boy!

“I want to be the man my dog thinks I am.” –Author Unknown

puppyWe lost our sweet yellow Lab this week. Rufus Atticus  passed away on Tuesday, February 12th. He did go gently into that good night, licking a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup while the doctor gave him the injection. It happened, like so many things in our lives, unexpectedly, without warning. This time a week ago he was frolicking in the snow at his favorite spot: thenature preserve at the end of our street. And then his leg broke–just broke.  He gave a piercing cry that I have never heard from him. As he rested for the remainder of the weekend, we were cautiously optimistic. But the visit to the vet confirmed the worst. A malignant bone tumor. Of course there was the option of amputating the leg and giving him chemo, but that would only buy him a few months, which did not seem fair to him and was something I didn’t want the boys, or us, to endure. So, really, there was only one option–to put him to sleep.

After his diagnosis, I held it together while in the vet’s office, but once outside, the tears erupted. As I watched him hobble to the car, I couldn’t believe our time together was dwindling. Pam came home from work once I told her, and we cried together, with Rufus lying in his bed looking at us with the same lovable face–a face that blended wisdom, love, admiration, excitement, joy and sadness. This was his forever face. He was our first born, our starter baby. We bought him a year into our marriage, the pre-children acquisition to determine how we would parent together. And we certainly did learn a lot about each other by raising Rufus, about shared responsibility and  teaching him how to behave, about the fact that it’s up to both of us to pick up poop and walk him, and that whoever lets him out the other must let him back in…

When I think back on the past ten and a half years with this dog, I realize that I spent the most time with him in our family. I must have taken him on thousands of walks. Thousands! I walkedrufgrad him practically every day of his life. When he was young, these were long runs through hill and dale. As he aged, they became meandering trots through the woods. This became my daily routine, my ritual, my identity. In the neighborhood, it was common for neighbors to see me making my usual rounds. At the preserve, I was familiar with all the other dogs–I was known as Rufus’ dad (It’s a funny thing about pets–we all seem to know their names, but not their owner’s.) Rufus and I could be found in the open space at least five days (or nights) a week. But now I am dogless. Now, I don’t feel I can walk back there alone. Now, I feel like I will be viewed as a creeper lurking in the woods. How sad is that?

ruf22My sadness over this loss was at first surprising, but then completely understandable. I was losing my boy, my companion, my best friend. Sure, I had dogs growing up, but we never cared for them the way a dog needs to be cared for. We simply argued whose turn it was to let him out the back door and whose turn it was to let him in. But Rufus was my only dog as a grown man. And I did grow so much in his lifetime. Not only as his owner, but as a husband, then a father, and a man…Rufus was present through all of this. And his name! Rufus Atticus. This name was my first homage to my hero, Atticus Finch. Before Dadicus Grinch was ever a thought in my mind, there was this loyal creature who embodied so many of the good things about this world, much like my literary hero.

I spent most of Rufus’ last day on Earth on the floor. I wanted to be with him, to sit and reflect on all he was to us. At times, I wailed. I was filled with the typical regrets: I fell asleep on Friday putting Owen to bed and never gave you a walk; we’ll never go swimming in the bay again; you’ll never chase another squirrel out of our yard. Like all those in grief, I even embraced the things that drove me crazy about him–I wanted to hear his annoying bark when someone came to the door; I wanted to be covered in his fur that I was constantly bitching about vacuuming up every other day.


318404_226837207369567_918782669_n
When we told the boys, they were obviously upset. We had practiced what we would say, but it made no difference. The words we rehearsed escaped us, and our raw emotions spewed forth. “Rufus is in pain and needs to go to heaven.” I think they were more taken aback by our crying then the news of his dying. “You guys look like your eyes are bleeding when you cry,” said Hayden. “Yeah, and it looks like your head is going to explode!” said Owen. “Well, what do you think you look like when you cry?” I asked. In hindsight, I’m glad they saw me cry. I’m glad they saw me sitting there with the dog on his bed crying for him, for me, for all of us. This is a part of life, and they will remember it forever. I want them to know there is no shame in crying, there is nothing wrong with being sad when someone you love is hurting. Because when a loved one hurts, you hurt, too.

313166_10150368796097036_1404978185_nRufus spent his final day as he did most other days–eagerly awaiting the next piece of food to come his way. However, on this day he did not need to wait long. Every time Pam turned the corner, she had a treat for him. From cheese to cantaloupe, from popcorn to pork tenderloin. This dog ate everything his heart desired. When we took him to the vet, the decadence continued with biscuits and chocolate–a dog’s forbidden fruit. He ate more pieces of chocolate than some kids on Halloween. Such pleasures helped to mask the grief we were all feeling, helped to hush the constant cries of pain he made when trying to walk on three legs.

After the vet gave him a sedative, he began to settle down on a soft blanket. We lied there with him on the floor and tried to quiet our sobs. The nurses kept the chocolate coming, which he lapped up with his soft tongue. A sweet older woman said, “This is how I want to go out. Surrounded by people who love me, being fed chocolate.” As the doctor waited to administer the medicine that would end his life, I began to talk about what a wonderful dog he has been. “From the moment we got you, Rufus, you were our sweet boy.” I then remembered the story I often told about picking him up from a breeder in Maryland. During times of sadness, I attempt to use humor to soften the pain. Not surprisingly, this can backfire. It can make things awkward. I seem to have a knack for making things worse by adding my weirdness to the mix. Such was the case when I launched into this tale.

“The family where we bought Rufus was very religious,” I began. “You’re not going to tell this story now, are you Michael?” said Pam. “Sure, why not.” The female doctor and two female assistants looked unfazed. “Yeah, this family had religious plaques and crucifixes around their farm. And the couple had three sweet children. The man said, ‘Well, there are two puppies left. You can have your pick. And if you want to see the bitch, she’s up in the pen.’ Well, it took everything Pam and I had not to burst out laughing like two high school kids. As I drove us home to Pennsylvania, with Rufus on Pam’s lap, I said to her, ‘Honey, wouldn’t it have been funny if when he asked us to see the bitch in the pen I said ‘See the bitch? I just drove with her in the car for three hours!'” We laughed at this, but then both agreed that the breeder and his wife would NOT have thought it was funny. Neither did the vet or her assistants, who all gave me a look that said “We’ll chalk it up to your grief, but that story makes you look like a real asshole.” I certainly felt like one. But as I petted my pup for the last time, I didn’t care what anyone else in the room thought about me, because my dog thought I was one hell of a guy. He said so everyday as he laid at my feet, as he greeted me at the door, as he plopped his pull toy in my lap while I read the paper, as he stood for our nightly walk as soon as I descended the stairs from putting the boys to bed.

Thank you, Rufus. For believing me to be the man I continue to try to be. Goodnight, sweet boy.

528594_458113227575296_2075904710_n

The Mother of All Fears

When my mother was five years old, her father dropped dead from a heart attack at the kitchen table.  She witnessed this.  It breaks my heart to think that such a young, sweet girl would have to endure such a tragic sight. To make matters worse, her mother suffered a series of miscarriages and stillborns throughout their marriage.  The day Joseph Donahue’s heart gave out, his wife, Mary, was three months pregnant.  She carried the baby to term, only to deliver another stillborn.  Thus, the die was cast, and Joanne, an only child, began a life fixated on death and all things macabre.

As a child, this dark fixation was fueled by the pagan babies she adopted in church to save from the fires of hell.  As an adult, it found its energy in all of life’s tragedies. When I was growing up, this was most exemplified in my mother’s signature send-off when kissing us good night.  The only family I knew who was tucked in when I was a kid was The Walton’s on TV.  But when we went to kiss my mom goodnight, all of us said something to the tune of “Goodnight, Mom.  Love you. See you in the morning.” Her response: “God willing.”  God willing??  No, “I love you, too”, or “Sweet dreams.”  God willing!  I would lie in my trundle bed, and imagine the angel of death coming in her long, gossamer gown, and her silvery blue hair, to suck all of the life out of my mom, and carry her soul to heaven.  I hated that angel.  And those words would echo in my ears as I tried to will myself to sleep.  God willing.  Why would God want to take a woman with seven children?  What would His will want with Joanne Trainer from Thunderhead Road?  (Years later, my sister Kristen told me that she would sneak into my parents’ room in the night and place her tiny fingers under my Mom’s nose to feel her breathing.)  So, I found comfort in saying my prayers.  I prayed that God’s will would see fit to keep my mother on Earth, because we needed her here—she had seven kids to look after, for Christ’s sake (sorry, Jesus).  And I ended my prayers with the most comforting of songs to a good Catholic boy: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.  Ahhh, Death, the immortal comfort in our home.

One of the first times I realized the impact of my mother’s obsession with death was when she was giving me driving directions to a party in Philadelphia.  It went something like: “Make a right where that boy was hit and killed by the drunk driver, then go past the funeral parlor where your Uncle Billy was laid out.  Turn onto the road where I had to walk home from work that night your brother forgot to pick me up and that strange man tried to mug me, and just keep going straight…”

There I was, in the car, alone, with my mother’s directions, wondering why I was becoming increasingly anxious as I approached my destination, and it hit me—she’s crazy. The woman is completely fixated with tragic outcomes. She should have married Edward Gorey, creator of the Gashleycrumb Tinies.

Not too long after that, we were away at my brother’s graduation from college.  Again, I knew her death obsessed clutches had a hold on my thoughts.  We were sitting around the indoor pool of the hotel, when I realized I needed something from the room.  Before I left, I immediately thought of the horrible story about a young boy who was abducted in a hotel years before—snatched from the hallway while going to his room, never to be seen again.  I no sooner pushed this dark thought from my mind and announced I needed to go back to the room to get something, when my mother pipes up—without missing a beat—“Be careful, hon, remember that little boy who was kidnapped and murdered in that hotel.” Sadly I did remember him– one of the many anonymous phantoms who filled our days with imaginary angst and dread. Yet, I was past my kidnapping prime—I was twenty years old.  Should this have comforted me?

Joanne never tired of regaling us with stories of characters (assumed real) who met untimely, dastard demises:  the little boy who fell out of the tree, the girl whose hand was knocked off by a telephone pole because she stuck it too far out the window, the boy who refused to wear a raincoat and then died from pneumonia. Each victim a faceless character from “up state”, her euphemistic attempt at keeping danger a few counties over.  As a kid, whenever I thought of “up state”, I thought of streets lined with body parts from all those kids who lost limbs because they were bad listeners, and I imagined the cemetery with all of the victims whose head stones relayed their accidental demises a la haunted house style: Here lies Sara who died from catching fire after stealing her mother’s cigarettes…

When I was in third grade, a real tragedy struck our town: a young woman of about twenty was killed in a car accident. “Grace” was a passenger in her boyfriend’s car.  She was from a large, well-liked family, and to make matters worse, she was an identical twin. I can remember many Sundays watching her family at church—all nine of them—lined up in loving order, with Grace and her twin like two statuesque beauties standing side by side.  It seemed as if the entire world mourned the loss of this bright star.  My brother Joe, a year older than I, was in school with Grace’s brother.  He wanted to go to the viewing.  Not wanting to be left out, I asked if I could go, too.  My mother obliged.  It was one of the saddest experiences of my life.  The streets outside the funeral parlor were lined with mourners, many of them Grace’s peers—young people in the prime of their lives.  Tears flowed abundantly.  I remember waiting in line, the wailing chorus of “No’s” and “whys” echoing through my mind.  By the time we neared the family, and then the dreaded casket, my anxiety had reached a frenzied state.  This was a scene that no child should have to witness.

Realizing her mistake in bringing us to this tragic event, my mother convinced my father that it would be a good idea to get our minds’ off of the evening by taking us to see a movie.  Now, in my house, a movie was a big treat. It was something we did a couple times a year! (Pre-cable people!)  This was serious.  My sad ears perked up.  A movie was just the thing we needed to wash away the sadness.  My mother took us to the late showing of a film called The Champ, a remake of the classic Mickey Rooney film, starring Jon Voight, Faye Dunnaway, and a young boy named Ricky Schroeder.  It was the saddest movie of the decade!  In the end, the washed up, has-been boxer makes one last attempt at redeeming himself by fighting in the ring to reclaim his reputation, and his son’s complete admiration.  He dies.  HE DIES!  My mother took us to the one movie that had a sadder ending than any movie I had ever seen.  My brother and I cried harder at this than we did at the viewing.  At one point, Joe’s sobbing became so loud that he had to leave the theater.  In hindsight, it is hard to believe that my mom could make a special outing like a movie sadder than the death of a young woman, but she did.  I could be more understanding if she did not know what the film was about—but it was a remake of a classic film that she had seen!  It has one of the saddest endings of all time.  Not to mention the fact that it was the late show.

In my mind, when I replay the events of that night, we go out for ice cream, a nice bowl of ice cream, and my mom calmly assuages our fears of death, and tells us how proud she was of her brave big boys being so tough at the
sad event.  Such is the childhood of my dreams. Instead, I’m sure she reminded us to offer it up for all the poor souls in purgatory, and told us that we were lucky because we were all still alive. When we got home well past midnight, I simply wanted to go to bed and forget this day ever happened. I kissed my mother, then said my familiar nighttime chorus: “Good night, mom. Love you. See you in the morning…” As I walked up the stairs, I could hear her reassuring me: “God willing.” God willing indeed.

All drawings done by the amazing Edward Gorey. Visit http://edwardgorey.com/