Family

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.

 

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!

Elf You!

This post originally appeared on December 5, 2013.

elfIt happened again this morning–another reminder of how I am depriving my children, something that I’m sure will leave an emotional scar for decades to come. You see, our house is elfless. You read that right. We do not have an”Elf on the Shelf” (brought to you by Hasbro…batteries not included). Sorry, certain marketing gems bring me back to the commercials of my childhood.

Anyway, there we were, getting ready for school, the boys eating breakfast at the kitchen counter, when a neighbor dropped off her two kids for my wife to put on the bus. “Now, Adam, don’t forget to have a good day at school,”she calls out to him as he bounces through the kitchen. Then, she turns to us and says, “Blinky had to make a special trip to the North Pole to give Santa a report.” The boys and I exchange confused looks. Pam says, “Oh, you have an elf.” “Yep,” she says, smiling, although I can’t tell if her look is one of rejoicing or regret. “He’s helping Santa keep a close eye on them.” We all laugh nervously–my wife and I with the fear that our boys will ask why we don’t have an elf. Thankfully, they don’t. Yet, as we continue with the morning routine, I feel a bit sad for them. They are excluded from this new holiday tradition. We are completely disconnected from the elf craze. This is what it must be like for my Jewish friends who did not grow up with Santa, I think. Lucky them!

I am kind of a curmudgeon when it comes to Christmas. I hate all the hullabaloo about shopping and buying presents, of giving and getting gifts. “We have to get Soandso a gift because they get us one.” “Another pleather wallet! You shouldn’t have, Uncle Marty.” Really, you shouldn’t have. It’s worse with my own kids, who start making preliminary Christmas lists in June! I think they’ve made six this year (so far). I’m such a Grinch that I look forward to the day when they no longer believe in Mr. Claus. Then, I won’t feel bad about shooting down their wish lists. Now, we have to invent stories about why they couldn’t get a thousand dollars worth of Legos from Santa.

I enjoy family get togethers. I like the idea of decorating a tree and eating Christmas cookies, but the whole consumerism thing gives me a headache as thick as Target‘s Christmas catalogue–which arrived before Halloween. And that’s why I was actually glad when we dodged the snowball of Elf on the Shelf. It has gained popularity just as our sons’ belief in Santa is waning. They are seven and nine for Kringle‘s sake. My wife almost caved last year, but I begged her not to give in. Thankfully, she was strong. But it is awkward for us when others mention their elves. Anyone with younger kids, toddlers and such, HAS to have one, like my poor neighbor this morning, whose son is in kindergarten. If our kids were younger, we’d have an elf. And I’d be in HELF–Elf Hell.

I don’t think American culture needs any more encouragement when it comes to celebrating Christmas. As a matter of fact, I wish there was a little more coal handed out. Plus, I’m bothered by the whole “Watching You” concept. It’s bad enough to invent the omnipresent eyes of the invisible Santa, but now to have one of his minions looking in on you, well, in that case why not just call him Big Brother? Sorry to be such a downer, but you can’t convince me of the value of this. Parenting is just one idle threat after another–I don’t need a plastic pixy to do my dirty work. Just as I try to stay away from Black Friday sales–which are still going on a week later, I might add–I try to avoid all things elf.

elf2

But I did have fun on my way to work. I fantasized about what I would tell the boys if they do ask why we don’t have an Elf on the Shelf. “Mommy’s allergic.” No. “They cost too much money.” Nope, they know how much they cost because they’re on display in every toy and card store. “They will leave poop in the house.” Definitely not. Knowing my boys, that would make them want one even more. Finally, I fantasize about having a conversation with them where I explain how we can’t get an elf because we have two new dogs under the age of one. Huck and Rosie would attack the elf, and could possibly even kill it, I explain. Next, we would all imagine the elf torn to shreds–its pointy nose and impish smile chewed to bits. Then one of the boys would ask if elves bleed, and I would nod yes. Their eyes would widen, as they hug me and thank me for saving one of Santa’s helpers. Then they would go to their rooms, clean them without asking and see all the toys they already have. “Dad,” they would holler, “come here, quick!” I would run upstairs to find them finishing a note to Santa that reads: Christmas List–Revised (in my fantasy, they know what revised means). “Here,” they would say (in my fantasy, they would speak in unison). Then, they’d hand me the piece of paper, which would state: “All we want for Christmas is peace on Earth.”

My boys…I shake myself from the fantasy just as I am pulling into the parking lot at work. I feel good. I’m oddly proud of my sons for wanting world peace. I remind myself to enjoy Christmas with them this year–it’s probably Owen’s last year “believing”.

And then an image pops into my head that warms my heart: It’s of our two dogs lying by the fire Christmas morning, gnawing on the last remnants of an elf ear . Ahhhh. Don’t you just love the holidays?

Photo credits: Michael Kappel

 

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.

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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

 

Wee the People

The voice of democracy rang through our house last week. Owen (9) came home to inform us that he was running for student council. “Only 4th and 5th graders can be classroom representatives,” he told me excitedly. “Each class elects one boy and one girl. A lot of boys are running, but I think I have a shot.”

As he walked out of the kitchen, I already felt like he had won. I was so proud of the fact that he decided to run on his own. As a parent, you’re often not sure if your kids are getting the message. We don’t keep a checklist on the fridge of all the things we do/do not want them to do. So, we try to lead by example. But, more than that, we hope. We hope a lot. Hope that they will understand all that we cannot put into words. That they err on the side of what’s right. That they just be nice, and kind, and president.

Over the next few days, Owen worked on his campaign. He sat in his room creating posters that highlighted his policies and platform. Posters that looked like this:

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“Wow, Owen!” I said, impressed. “This looks awesome!”

“And I made him this one, Dad,” said his little brother, Hayden (8):

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And just like that, I beheld the candidate and his campaign manager. For the next few days, it felt like I was in the presence of a young JFK and his brother, Bobby. The boys continued their work in earnest.

“Dad, did you notice on my signs where I ask everyone if they got their cards?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“See, you can’t give out candy or prizes, so I thought it would be neat to give each of them a card before they vote.” Cards. He made 28 little cards for his classmates. Cards that looked like this:

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“Here’s the one he made for me,” piped in his manager, Hayden. And he showed me this:

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“Now, Owen, you should put all of these in a folder so you don’t…” directed Hayden, and the two boys were off again. I saw them cutting and folding, and placing everything in what I am sure was the first file cabinet for many of us–underneath the couch.

The day before the election, the boys and I were driving in the car. “So, Owen, if you did win, what is something you think you might do for your fellow classmates?”

“Well,” he said, “every month we go to a meeting with the principal and some teachers and tell them of any problems.”

“What do you think might be a problem you would bring up?”

“Umm, like, let’s say the buses are too crowded. Then I would work to fix that.”

“Okay, how?” I implore.

“By telling them we need more buses!” he answers emphatically.

Would that it were that easier, my son. Would that it were, I think. Yet, I say, “Sounds good, buddy.”

That night, I watch him craft his speech. He doesn’t let me read it, but he allows me to show him how to write it in big letters on several indexphoto (56) cards. Since I will not see him in the morning, I wish him well before bed.

“Good luck tomorrow, O. And just remember, no matter what happens you can still be a leader.”

“Okay,” he says.

“You’re a leader just for wanting to run in the election. No matter what happens–you’ve already won in my book.”

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I first thought about writing this post before the election took place, and I thought it would be cool not to reveal if he won or not. I truly believe he is a winner just for trying to do this at such a young age. And not a “winner” in the sense that every kid gets a trophy at the end of the season regardless of their record, but a winner in the sense that he took a chance, he stood up, he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself.

But now that I know the outcome, I must inform you–and not for the reasons you might think.

Owen won. He did, and I am proud. But the victory was enlightening for other reasons.

For one, some of his “friends” said mean things about his winning–one even claimed they were no longer buds (the same boy who was playing with him at a birthday party two days later)–and therein lies a hard lesson for anyone. As the wise sage Taylor Swift once proclaimed, “And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate…” An important lesson indeed: there will always be people who will try to dampen your spirits, who don’t want you to succeed. But I am happy to tell you that Owen seemed quite unphased by this.

The second insight from the election comes from the fact that two of Owen’s running mates wore oxfords with bow ties and delivered Power Point presentations. My son wore his usual shorts and sneaks, delivered a heartfelt speech and gave everyone a colorful voting card–looks like Owen’s on his way to being a Democrat.

Regardless of his political leanings–he’ll always have my vote.

God Bless America!

 

 

Sunscream

While my friend is away this week, I’ve been watering her beautiful gardens and taking care of her pool–a job I relish because the boys and I go swimming everyday.

Yesterday, however, I was there by myself. It was the perfect day: bright, crisp, a gentle breeze and a cloudless sky. As the sun danced off the water, I was drawn to lie on a raft and just float in the pool.

Why is it that in these moments I feel guilty? When we are at rest, and our mind is clear, we should commend ourselves, not chastise.  I pushed those feelings of guilt aside, and as I closed my eyes and the raft drifted aimlessly, my thoughts hearkened back to other memories.

Now if you’re normal (and I know at least two of you reading this are), then you might imagine my mind sailing back to other peaceful memories of floating, like my honeymoon in Napa or a trip to the Virgin Islands. No. Not me. My mind drifted back to childhood, to a memory that is seared in my mind’s eye. You see, whenever I’m on a float in a pool, alone, I end up thinking about a time when I was six years old.

Although it’s hard to believe, when I was very young, my family had a pool. An above-ground pool. A legit above-ground pool. The kind that is meant to stay up for several seasons. The kind that had a filter. It was the most extravagant toy of my youth. And one day, I remember walking out to the pool by myself and climbing the ladder and getting on a float and drifting off to sleep. The reason I remember this, the reason it is seared into my memory, is because I slept for so long that when I was awoken by my sister, I was badly sunburned. I spent the next week nursing a blistering burn–literally popping blistery bubbles all over my skin. If you’re grossed out, imagine how I felt? Sunburn_flickr_02 About a decade ago, I had to go to a dermatologist for a skin check. I had a “questionable mole”. The mole got the answer I was hoping for–not cancerous–but in the process, I received more insight. For some reason, I found the doctor’s questions humorous. As if the answers were obvious and she was teasing me.

Have you ever had a sunburn? Ahhh, yeah. I grew up in the seventies.

Have you ever had a blistering sunburn? You mean sunburnS, plural. Is there another kind? I basically shed more skin than a snake in my youth.

People who have had even one blistering sunburn before the age of fifteen have a fifty percent greater risk of WAHWAHWAHWAH…At that point, I had to block her out. One blistering sunburn? I was human bubble wrap back then–all seven of us kids were.

I left the doctor’s office feeling very scared.

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When my wife and I were dating, I remember telling her my pool/blister saga while on a road trip. We were driving in the car one summer afternoon. “I just wish we had sunscreen back then,” I said, finishing my story somewhat awkwardly. Here she was, getting a glimpse into my wacky upbringing.

She looked at me with a sad expression, “Honey, we did have sunscreen back then.”

NO! No we did not. There is no freakin’ way we had sunscreen.

“Really?” I said, trying to mask my anger.

“Unhunh,” she said with a nod, feeling bad about being the bearer of such news.

“But that doesn’t make sense! Why would my parents not use sunscreen? We could always afford the Noxema afterwards to cool our scorched bodies. My mom even joked about how rich she would be if she had stock in Noxema.”

I was incredulous. I thought about all the times we were left out to bake in the sun like little potatoes: The trips to Wildwood, the days swimming in the pool, every outdoor event of my youth, with nothing but my white Irish skin to fight off the evil sun’s rays. And this was before the era of willfully laying out in lounge chairs with tin foil and baby oil.

What were we thinking back then? What!?

Sweetie,” Pam said to me, trying to draw me back from the past, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just pretty messed up, you know?”

“You know what’s more messed up?” she said.

I did not.

“What?”

“The fact that you were in a pool by yourself at the age of six. How could you be out there so long by yourself?”

Oh. My. God. I had never thought of that! In all the times I’d thought of that event, it was the sunburn that made me mad. I couldn’t even claim I was a good swimmer. I even failed swimming lessons. (More on that saga here ).

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And now, a decade and a half later, I think about how different my children’s experiences are. Christ, we put sunscreen on them if they’re coming to the food store with us. We sit outside the bathroom as they take a shower in case the water turns hot or they need a fluffier towel.

So different from my own experience as a kid. So, so different.

Then, the other day, Pam tells me that the FDA just announced that kids should no longer use spray-on sunscreen as they are inhaling too much of the fumes. Cry me a river, I think. When I was their age I was inhaling second-hand smoke. Hell, I had even tried a few cigarettes by their age.

Just sayin’.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go water my friend’s garden. And not to worry, I’ve got SPF 50 on this bald head of mine.

Love

love

I have come to realize that my sons do not say “I love you.”  I am trying to train them to at least respond, “I love you, too.” But lately, I’ve shied away from doing so.

One night, a while back, I was tucking Hayden(7) in to bed and I said, “Goodnight, buddy, I love you.” Silence filled the room. His face was buried in his pillow.   Frustrated, I said, “I love you, too, dad.” Still nothing. I tickled him. He relented. “Sort of”, he mumbled into the pillow. “Sort of?” I shouted back. “Yeah,” he said, “it means a little.'”

For a time, this incident made me sad. He knows I love him, I’d think. I hug him, kiss him, tickle him, and show him affection daily. And I know, deep down, deeeeeeeeeeeeep, deeeeeeeeeeeeeep down, he loves me, too.

Lately, though, I’ve changed my attitude about the lack of “I love yous” I hear.  I’ve had to search for why this affected me so much. There’s the obvious need to love and be loved, but I knew it ran deeper than that.

Why do we say “I love you”? What purposes does it serve? Certainly, it varies from relationship to relationship. Ultimately, however, I think it serves to remind people how much we care about them. But, as I consider this spoken gesture more, I also think it’s a way for us to remind them that they love us, too–or they SHOULD, we think (we hope).

Whenever I tell Owen (9) I love him, I do not get a response, but I feel a sense of acceptance. If I could read his thoughts, it seems they would say something like, “Of course you love me, I’m your son. I’m your first-born. I’m a good kid…but you don’t need to say it all the time–it’s a given. Relax.” Yet, often, when I tell Hayden I love him, there is almost a defiance in his reaction. His mouth turns into a half-smile/half-frown–a frile, if you will. I’m not sure I want to read his thoughts. I think he fights my love–I feel him rejecting this level of emotion because either he doesn’t feel worthy of my love, or he doesn’t want to care about me so deeply–or maybe a little of both.

But the love my boys identify with today, they will remember decades from now.

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I still remember the lunch my mother packed me for my first grade field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. I walked home for lunch everyday, so packing a lunch was a treat. The bag was stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness: a ham and cheese sandwich, potato chips, a soda, cracker jacks AND a candy bar. I knew I had the best lunch in my group. I wanted to shout for joy from the top of the monorail. That day, that lunch made me feel so  special, so loved.

I still remember the time in second grade when I came home with a bad grade on a spelling test. I was so nervous to show my parents. And even though I was supposed to get it signed, I decided to hide it where no one would find it–under the clothes dryer. It was someone’s birthday that night and my grandparents were over for dinner. Towards the end of the meal, it dawned on me that the dryer gets very hot. As a junior neurotic, I decided that my spelling test would catch on fire and burn the house down. I began to cry. “I’ve done something bad–really bad.” My whole family, grandparents included, marched down to the laundry room. My dad laid on the floor and fished the paper out from underneath the dryer. He was not mad at all–about my subterfuge or my poor spelling. He smiled and said, “Next time, just tell us, okay.” “Okay,” I said, whimpering. As we ate our cake, I felt oddly elated–my dad loves me even when I make mistakes!

Both of these memories evoke times when I felt wholly loved by my parents. A very pure, somewhat magical feeling.

I grew up in a house where “I love you” was spoken a lot. Ours was a large family in a small house. Day-to-day, amid the chaos, it was hard to sense the love, but the words were uttered. As we left for school each morning, these three words would be part of the exchange between the seven of us and our parents. And each night, before bed, I would kiss my mom and dad, and say, “Goodnight. I love you. See you in the morning.” My mother would respond with her now-infamous “God willing,” leaving me to conjure her death as I laid down to sleep. My father? I don’t remember his response. I think it varied. But, I marvel at the fact that I kissed him goodnight throughout my childhood, and with every hello and goodbye as an adult.

For me, for my past, love was a spoken reminder. Perhaps the words were said in an attempt to add calm to the fray. Yet, those words hung like an albatross around my neck for much of my life. Often, love felt heavy, sad, anxious, chaotic. Often, love felt conditional.

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To this day, my mother says “I love you,” to me every time we speak. If she calls me four times in a day, she says it four times. In an attempt to not become obsessive about this (which I think makes me more obsessive about it) I purposely do not respond with an “I love you, too” every time she says it–I shoot for fifty percent of the time. I am aware that my mother takes note of this.

Perhaps my refusal to overstate my love stems from the fact that, even now, there seems to be an unspoken obligation with those words, as if love can magically erase all the burdens of our past, or is the antidote for all that ails the relationships in a family. Love cannot. At least the words cannot. As cliché as it sounds, “Actions speak louder than words.” I love my mom, and I know that she loves me, but I’ve realized in life that saying I love you and doing I love you are very far removed.

When I first became a part of my wife Pam’s family, I marveled at the fact that they rarely said “I love you.” It is written in cards, but not said at the end of every encounter. It was as if I were finally connecting all the dots: Hmmm. They don’t go around saying they love each other all the time, but I know they do. They are kind to one another, and respectful of each other’s opinions, and they do thoughtful things for one another–DING! Oh, you can feel it but not have to say it every day, every phone call, every exchange. I found this to be very refreshing.

Pam and I do say it often–even several times a day, which I appreciate, because she is the most important person in my world–my life partner. In that case, I find it strengthens our bond.

As for the boys, I find I say it often to them, and usually there is no response. At first, this made me feel angry, worried. Then it dawned on me–they feel loved. They feel my love. Their needs are being met daily. They want for very little and we spend a good deal of time together, interacting or just in each other’s presence. I believe that structure, that sense of stability, makes these words seem unnecessary to them.  Thus, there is no need for them to say it back to me. For now. For now, they just need to know that they are loved and feel they are loved. And in the end, all of us need to accept that we are worthy of the love we are given.

Once again, having children has taught me valuable life lessons. Kids may be the result of love, but we cannot create life as a way to force someone to love us back. Love is cultivated over time. For a parent, it seems that love begins with an ultrasound. For a child, that love manifests itself in stages. It is our job to teach children how to love, and the best way to do that is to show them. In short, to love them. Unconditionally.

“I love you” can serve as a reminder that you love me, too. Or it can serve as a reminder that you are loved. As a parent, I choose the latter, and I know what the answer is, even if it is unspoken.

Now, I seem to ponder the concept of love more. Whom I love. Who loves me. Not, who I have history with, or who I am in close proximity to, but who I have an abiding emotional connection to and for. It has been a very enlightening journey–emphasis on the lighten. I DO feel lighter. I used to think of love as something that anchored me, like a rock. Now, I try to view love as a feather, as a breath. Light and soft.

 

 

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