Family

Big Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately. About how we love and who we love. Which got me thinking about my childhood, which got me thinking about my brothers and sisters, which got me thinking about my parents, which got me thinking about my mother’s approach to love, which got me thinking about Big Love, the HBO show about polygamy starring Bill Paxton. Confused? Good. So am I.

I must be confused if I am equating familial love with polygamy. But in a weird way, it makes sense, like the Oedipus Complex does if you don’t think about it too much:) Most of us cannot comprehend having more than one spouse, but think nothing about people having more than one child.  Yet, with each new being brought into a marriage or family, the dynamic changes, hence, all the relationships change. In Big Love, Bill’s first wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorne), is like the oldest child: a responsible caretaker; his second wife, Nicolette (Chloe Sevigny), behaves like the troubled middle child; and his third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), is like the youngest child, playful and carefree. Bill loves each wife for who they are, but each love is different, and their love for one another is different as well. It is reflective of their order in the relationship–of how long they’ve been in the marriage.

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Love is very confusing in that we are taught how to love by being loved–or not. When we move on to love others outside our family, we confront the shortcomings of how we love. When and if we have a family of our own, we approach the way we love in the hopes of loving unconditionally. See, that’s one of the problems for me–the concept of unconditional love. I have always been suspicious of unconditional love. Can people really love others without condition? Do I love without condition? I think for a while I did not love myself photo (46)unconditionally, and I do believe that you can’t love others fully if you don’t fully love yourself. Now that I have children, I am hopeful that I know what unconditional love is. But I remain cautious because so many relationships in our lives seem to be built around conditions, an approach that sounds like “I love you…until.” I love both my boys no matter what, but I think I also love them differently because both of them are different and have different personalities and needs.

I knew I wanted a small family. After our first son was born, my wife was pushing for a second, and I panicked. “I’m already having trouble adjusting to one,” I whined. She persisted, and I’m glad she did. I was against having a lot of kids because I thought that then I would have to divide my love. During this time, I came  across a great quote that addressed my concern. I think it was by Michelle Duggar actually, the woman who lived in a shoe, the one who has nineteen children, and counting! I have so much angst when it comes to large families that I would actually get annoyed if my wife was watching this show. I just can’t imagine that many kids living in a healthy household. Yet, Mother Duggar’s words were quite poignant: “When you have children, the love does not get divided, it gets multiplied.” I love this quote! However, I’m not sure I trust it. And I think if you ask her 19th child, she may be skeptical about the exponential love that surrounds her. Or how about the tenth child–who just happens to be the middle child? These children have a much different love than the Duggar’s firstborn. I think that’s my problem with love–the love we experience–the love we give and receive–is different. With every person we love it is different.

During my childhood, I had the luxury of being the baby the longest. I was the fifth child, and enjoyed my youngest status until I was four, when my mother had fraternal twins. Twins! Back when twins were still an anomaly of sorts. And those little bundles stole all of the attention I enjoyed at home. On walks, everyone would stop to see “the babies”, and say “hello” to me as an afterthought. There is a picture–which I cannot find–where my brother and sister are posed in their baby seats. They are featured from head to toe in adorable matching onesies. But if you look a little more closely, you will see two small hands on either side of their seats, and you will determine that there was another person in the photo. Me. Those are my hands, my arms hugging the babies, yet my head is cut off. Talk about a metaphor. In some ways I’ve been searching for my head ever since.

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Recently, I have finally determined what my mother’s problem is: She’s human. As a human, she has serious flaws, as do I and you and the Duggar woman. I came to this realization when trying to sort out all of the fractured elements in my family. There is no unifying sense of love and togetherness for us. Growing up, love seemed very conditional. There was a lot of withholding of love in our house, evidenced by such classically Irish pastimes as the silent treatment and ignoring the elephants that sat in our tiny living room. The Irish seem to be masters of silence, able to avoid any conversation while seething on the inside. My heritage is 100% Irish.

As a boy, I thought my mother was a living saint. She was the heartbeat in our house and we were all her confidants at one time or another. It was always a source of pride to be privy to my mother’s latest struggle or hurt. I remember one Thanksgiving when I was about 9, I accompanied my mom to the cemetery to place flowers on her mother’s grave. On the ride home, the brakes failed. She quickly regained control of the car, and there was no accident, but I knew the potential crash had the intoxicating scent of tragedy for my mother. “WE could have been killed!” she exclaimed to me, then to my family as she regaled them with our adventure over turkey a few hours later. I remember locking eyes with her as she told the table about our now near-death experience–on our way from the cemetery no less! There was a sense of pride in her gaze, a look that said, “Today, I chose you, Michael.” Whether I was the only one who was willing to go with her or not is irrelevant. I wanted that role because it made me feel special, chosen.

My mother was an only child. Her father died when she was five. Her grandfather was a raging alcoholic in their small town. I’d imagine her love as a child was a lonely love–a frightened love. She went on to have seven children. Throughout my life, she has loved each of us, but not evenly. About a month ago, I had an epiphany by way of analogy. My mother is like a mama bird with seven baby birds. At any given time, mama bird has two, maybe three of her babies under her wing, but the other birds are held at a distance.  Each bird knows the feeling of warmth and love under that wing, and it becomes their mission to get under that wing once again. They’re not even aware of this desire–it is innate. But if they find themselves there, that means another bird is pushed out. One might argue that the bird’s wingspan is large enough for all the birds, but this has not been the case. Mama bird may not even realize this, for she was the only one under her own mother’s wing. And as a result, the birds care more about being under that wing than being together in the nest. They don’t even notice whose in the nest, they just want to be under that wing.

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As I get older, I am amazed at how many families have estrangements. Almost every family I know has people in it that are not on speaking terms. Even very “functional” families, even those with many successes, have people who are ostracized, members who are not welcome, or are perennially absent. What does this say about the nature of family? Of love? Is it naive to think everyone in a family could love each other? Are larger families more susceptible to estrangements? I don’t know (I’m confused, remember?). But for me, the real tragedy in all of this is the fact that it seems to take as much energy to not love those in our lives, energy that could be spent on loving. [Insert frustrating scream here]. Maybe that’s where the unconditional part comes in. When we put conditions on our love we exhaust the love’s potential. If we love no matter what, our love knows no boundaries. I am not capable of doing that with most people, and I’m not even sure it’s healthy. But I have started down this path of unconditional love as a father, and it has allowed me to look back as a son.

MY goal as a father is to love my boys without question, and to teach them how to love one another in kind. In order to do this, I am determined to talk through issues with them as they occur, and face things head-on, openly. Some people have even asked what I would do if they read my blog. Well, I imagine one day they will–and I’ll make damn sure they go back to the beginning. And we will talk about anything they want to talk about that I have written.

As a father, I vow to never exclude them from my life, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that they have a relationship with each other for all of their days. Naturally there will be fighting, there will be resentments, but in the end they will always choose love. That is my hope for them. And for me. And for you, dear reader. And for you.photo (45)

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My Third Grader Learns the Meaning of Irony

Below is a copy of Owen’s first official essay. He was very proud of his work. And upset when he discovered what happened to it. Yep, the dog ate his homework. Please note the title/topic of his piece.

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A Picture’s Worth?

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. I disagree. I say a picture’s worth about five words, and often those words are inaccurate. I came to this realization after our family ventured to New York City for a weekend of Christmas cheer. We had tickets to a 9 a.m. (yes, a.m.) show of The Radio City Christmas Spectacular on Sunday morning, so we decided to go up on Saturday and ring-a-ling some Christmastime in the city. My wife’s parents met us in Manhattan.

On the train ride back that snowy Sunday afternoon, I posted this picture on Facebook:

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It received the most likes I’ve gotten all year (over 90!). Yet, as I looked at the photo, and the sweet comments from my FB family, I felt like a bit of a fraud. “Beautiful family,” said my friend, Barb. Thanks, Barb. I agree.

However, there is so much more to the story than the pictures we post on any social media outlet. Think about that profile picture you just updated with a shot of your Christmas tree. Any fights happen during the decorating? Or, what ugly comment fell out of your mouth while trying to get your kids to look perfect for the family photos of the now obligatory holiday card?

Yes, this picture captured some of the fun, and all of the magic that the Big Apple has to offer during the holiday season, but it did not tell the whole story–the thousand words were far from that photo. For this picture was taken only an hour after my son said the ugliest thing he’s ever said to me, and I responded in (un)kind.

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New York City is one of my favorite spots, and as I get older, I think of it as home to the world. I love the feeling of belonging I get when I’m in New York.  The city makes me feel alive. However, the city with 2 young boys can make me feel suicidal. Beyond the complaining about walking (“My pants are hurting”) and the cold (“I can’t feel my neck”), there is the constant worry that one of your kids may die! My darling son thought it was funny to run ahead to the corner of every street, threatening to step into oncoming traffic. If I had a dollar for every time I yelled “Hayden” as he approached a cross walk, I would have been able to stay at The Four Seasons rather than The Courtyard Marriott. I knew it was bad when I started having fantasies about having an only child–or GASP none at all (only for the weekend, of course:). I would chastise myself mentally for thinking this, but then I would spy both kids walking zigzag down the block, stepping in everyone’s way, or brushing up against any surface in the hopes of ripping their brand new winter coats. Breathe, Michael. It’s the holidays. Enjoy this moment. Let them be kids… GET OFF THAT WALL NOW!

We packed a lot into one day. We marched our way up 5th Avenue and marveled at all of the glittering photo (34)storefront windows, and the dazzling display of wealth. We stood in line at FAO Schwarz and then beheld the most fantastical, over-indulgent toy store in the whole United States. Surprisingly, we convinced both boys that Radio City was our gift to them , and they could use their allowance to buy a toy (they get allowance for things like breathing and going to the bathroom inside the house). Hayden insisted we go to the Build-a-Bear factory to spend his allowance. As I watched the corporate bear adoption process, I was amazed at how sweet the whole experience felt. Then, more walking up to Rockefeller Center, aka Santa’s Insane Asylum. We’re talking throngs of people, hundreds packed so close together that even the Dalai Lama would feel claustrophobic.

I was relieved that we didn’t have any plans to ice skate, we were simply trying to view the tree and get to the LEGO store-which happened to be smack dab in the center of The Center! The store felt like Santa’s Workshop on Steroids. Owen planned on spending his money there, but after a half-hour of deliberation, we realized the line snaked around the store and down the stairs. I kid you not, it was probably a quarter-mile long. Bad Daddy came on the scene and said, “I’ll be happy to come tomorrow after the show, but we can’t wait in this line for an hour.” Tears. “The LEGO I really want is at the other place, but mom told me to wait til I came here.” “FAO Schwarz?” I ask. He nods. “I’ll take him back there,” says Pam. Had the madness seeped into her head? “Go for it,” I say. “Hayden and I will walk back to the hotel.” Which we did, after I got a Starbucks–no madhouse there, since there’s one on every corner in NYC.

Now a weekend in New York usually involves dinner and a show. However, when you have a seven and nine-year old, your dinner is at 6 p.m. and your show is at 9 the next morning. But reservations are still required, and we had them at a yummy spot called La Bonne Soupe. After a brief rest at the hotel, we headed back out into the bustle and walked up to the restaurant. I had been attempting to get a picture of photo (31)photo (30)the boys for our Christmas card all day, but Hayden insisted on making a goofy face in every photo. I tried on our walk to dinner, but he continued to smirk and squinch–not a genuine smile to be had. The restaurant was “cozy”, which is Manhattan for cramped, yet, the ambiance was warm and welcoming. The place is famous for their French Onion soup, and the menu was filled with many tempting dishes–which happened to come with a complimentary glass of wine. Sign me up. Although, at that point, I could have used a bottle or two.

Everyone was tired, but the boys were quickly fading. For Owen, fading means getting more quiet, for Hayden, fading means getting more obstinate. He refused to sit up, he was banging his plate and silver ware, and my mother-in-law had to ask him (politely) to get his hands out of his pants. All of this with the distraction of games on my I-Phone. It was early enough, and the place crowded enough, that he was not making a scene, but I was out of patience and he was out of time. I looked around the room, comforted by another family with two girls of similar ages to my sons, whose parents were hesitant but resigned to handing over their phones at the first sign of trouble.

Just then, a man sat down at the next table. He was older, well-dressed, and eating alone. Alone in a nice restaurant on a Saturday night–so why was I envious of him? Oh, I know why. The reason was kicking me under the table, trying to coerce me into downloading another frigging app to my phone. “No, Hayden,” I said, annoyed. He began to whine. “No!” He did the limb-flail on the booth seat. I was done with this behavior. I pulled one out of the Parenting Torture Manual: the under-the-table-pinch. He shot up, startled. Then, he realized what I did. I thought he might scream, upturn the table, chase me with a butter knife. But instead, he just hurled the meanest thing he’s ever said to me, right there in Manhattan, in front of all of us, including my in-laws. With quivering lips, he mumbled, “I wish you didn’t live with us,” with such dramatic flair that I would swear he’s been watching Lifetime TV movies.

And my response. My response? I looked at him, and with a measured tone said, “Oh, yeah, well guess what? When you act like this, no one at this table wants to live with YOU!” Inside, I felt better, but outside, I was being met with uncomfortable stares from everyone at my table AND the man sitting next to us. He looked up from his soup bowl and stared right into my eyes with an expression of sad disapproval–You are a mean man, Sir, his eyes said. No, my eyes shot back. NO! You have not lived with this kid for the past seven years. You haven’t watched him almost kill himself at every damn street corner today. You weren’t there when he choked his brother in line at FAO Schwarz. You weren’t there when I ran back into that madhouse of a toy store because he forgot the goddamn birth certificate for his goddamn bear: Mushroom Thomas Trainer. Don’t you judge me. This kid could put anyone over the edge. Even you, Mr. Perfect.

“Would anyone like another glass of wine?” asks the waitress as she checks in on our meal. “Yes!” say the four adults at our table. “YES!”

That’s the real story. Not the one you see in the photograph. That’s what I kept coming back to after I posted that picture on Facebook. This picture does not tell the whole story. Far from it. This picture does not show my insecurities at being a dad, the regret I feel for my reactions sometimes, the constant fear I have that something bad might happen to one of my children, the unfair resentment I have towards my sons’ for not knowing how lucky they are–we are–to be afforded these wonderful experiences, experiences I never had as a child.

I sit alone on the train, in an odd one-seater by the exit, and watch a lady and her boys eat cupcakes and giggle in the seats right in front of me. I am aware of the ease with which they handle each other, this family in front of me–my wife and our boys. It’s an ease I wish I could feel more.

The car ride home from the train station is adventurous and tense, as the first snowfall blankets the highway. The boys are excited to see the flakes. Pam and I worry as we see cars in ditches off to the side of the turnpike.

We are relieved to get home without incident. Excitedly, we begin to recap our experience in the city.  It’sphoto (32) unanimous that the Toy Soldiers was our favorite Rockette number in the show; Owen longs for the French toast he had at the corner diner; Hayden recalls the Rockefeller Center scene depicted in LEGOS. Like most trips, there were many bright moments, peppered with some miserable ones. And that’s the nature of family, of traveling, of life.

Then, Owen gripes about me making them wear those “itchy” sweaters to the play, and Hayden whines about the fact that I refuse to let him wear sweatpants everyday.  I tease them for being wimps. They say, “You’re so mean, Dad! You’re the meanest dad in the world!” I recall the Bad Parenting Manual this time and respond with, “Oh, yeah? If I’m so mean, then why don’t you two go and live somewhere else! Then you’ll see how good you have it.” Response one: “Fine!” Response two: “We will!” “You two wouldn’t make it to the end of the driveway!” They attempt to do just that, in six inches of snow, in bare feet. They come back in, frozen. The three of us can no longer tell if we’re kidding or angry, and I can see the headlines now: “Boys die of pneumonia attempting to run away from home. Meanest Dad in the World Missing”.

Pam brings the boys up to bed, and I throw myself a pity party while I shovel the driveway. With each mound of snow I heave, a thought spews from my mind: Well, someone HAS to be the bad guy; Mean? They’ve don’t even know what mean looks like; These boys live a charmed life; I’m tired of always being the disciplinarian. My thoughts pound steadily, each one making me feel worse. Then, I hear a banging on the bedroom window above–it’s Hayden, freshly showered and in his PJs. He’s banging hard. What did I do now, I think negatively. He says something, but it’s muffled. “What?” I yell up to the little figure in the night. “Will you come up and snuggle me?” he yells, louder this time. I laugh at the absurdity of it all, the meanest dad in the world being asked to snuggle. “Sure,” I say. “Give me five minutes.”

As I lay in Hayden’s bed, we talk about all the things we loved about the Christmas Show at Radio City. He shows me where his new bear, Mushroom, is going to sleep. Then, he asks me to draw letters on his back. I spell words and he tries to guess them: N-E-W Y-O-R-K C-I-T-Y: “New York City,” he shouts. S-A-N-T-A: “Santa,” he says, stifling a yawn. I-L-O-V-E Y-O-U: “I love you,” he whispers, halfway off to dreamland.

No picture could capture this moment.

The Bitter Pill of Aging

Two dollars and forty-nine cents. That’s all my most recent depression cost me. Lately, I’ve been down. The reason? I’m starting to feel old–I mean FEEL it.

Ever since I turned forty, my stance has been, “I love getting older. It gives me more of a perspective. More wisdom.” But now that I’m forty-four, I’m not so sure.

I dodged feeling sad last year when my eye sight changed. Maybe because they now call them “progressives” instead of “bifocals“, and technology has erased any trace of a line within the lens, my shift in eye sight seemed like just the latest change to my prescription.

And despite the fact that my now-favorite co-worker Bev called me a baby on my recent birthday, I feel I can’t hide from this aging thing any longer.

And that’s why I ended up buying this:

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I only take one prescribed pill a day, but I also take some vitamins and supplements, like fish oil to fight high cholesterol. And sometimes I’d forget to take my medicine, and a few times I took it twice. Other times, I would mess up and mistake a vitamin for my prescription… I was careless and clueless.  I’ve needed this for about five years now. I knew it would help me avoid any mix-ups. But I put it off. Getting a pill dispenser meant I was old. O-L-D!

Yet, the reminders just kept coming.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to some younger teachers at work, both in their twenties, and I started to say, “Just wait until your middle-aged like me.” And I had a mini-panic attack. As the words were about to roll off of my tongue, I realized that I had never actually called myself “middle-aged”. My lips became stuck and I  actually stuttered when I started to say mmmmmiddle-aged. Awkward.

Another day, while food shopping, I had to crouch down to get a box of crackers on the bottom shelf. My left knee locked and pain seemed to cement my leg in this position. I could not stand up. I could not straighten my leg. “This is it,” I thought, “I will now have to live in aisle five for the rest of my life.” Luckily, the hurt subsided. But since then, I avoid any crouching tiger positions–although there’s no avoiding aisle five.

Then, I decided to grow a beard for Movember to promote men’s prostate health–and it came in mostly white! One of my students even called me Santa Claus. “I think you mean Santa’s younger, skinnier brother,” I replied.  I wanted to shave it off right away. Damn you beard-for-a-good-cause.

And last week, I had my first migraine. I used to be one of those people who could say, “I don’t get migraines.” Oh, yeah, old man, well now you do. A friend told me that her doctor said that migraines can come on during shifts in one’s life cycle. “And, you know, maybe you’re getting them now because…” Pause. “Because I’m mmmmmiddle-age!” I yell back at her. “Well, maybe,” she says softly.

Then there are the boys. My sons are getting so big. Too big. I know they’ll be taller than me by middle school, and lately they walk around the house like they are auditioning for the role of sullen teenager on next year’s answer to Modern Family. They are content to play on their own. They watch TV and wrestle. I’m more of the guy who brings them Chex Mix or announces when dinner will be. My babies are now young boys–nine and seven.

Recently, several friends have announced that they are expecting. Great news. Yet, soon after learning it, I found myself sad. I’m done having babies. I no longer spend time in the rocker dozing with a drooling child snug in my neck. Everyone uses a toilet successfully (for the most part). Nothing in my house says “Fisher Price“. I am barely able to carry the boys in my arms–not that either of them begs to be lifted. It’s going too fast!!

I knew it was bad, when last week I actually toyed with the idea of having another child. I have adamantly held firm to the idea that two kids is plenty for me. Being one of seven, I like the balance and order that two children (seemingly) affords. Pam and I have always talked about adoption, though, even before we had the boys.  All week, I daydreamed about having a baby in the house. I mused about having a girl this time, and furnishing the now-guest-bedroom with borrowed items from friends and neighbors.

But then I did the numbers. Our youngest is seven, we’re forty-four, I haven’t had to get up at 2 a.m. for a feeding in 5 years. And I would be sixty-two at little Charlotte‘s senior year Back to School night. I’m already tired–now Lottie was beginning to exhaust me.  In the end, reality won over fantasy. Yet, one thing became clear. One of the reasons I’ve been feeling old lately is because it seems as if my kids don’t need me like they used to. They are more independent and I’m a little lonely. Sure, I’m their chauffeur, their human calculator at homework time, and number one fan at Saturday soccer, but it’s not the same as cradling someone you love in your arms, or holding someone’s hand just because, or singing them to sleep.

The other night, when I was being drill sergeant in the bathroom about brushing teeth, the boys and I were thinking of words that rhyme with “brush”. I said, “hush”. Then, I began to sing Hush little baby don’t say a word, papa’s gonna buy you a mocking bird...  Hayden looked at me wonderingly. “I used to sing that song to you when you were a baby,” I said. He nodded, toothpaste foaming in his mouth. A few moments later, when his older brother had left the bathroom, he tugged my arm and whispered, “Could you sing that song to me tonight in my bed?” “I sure can,” I whispered back.

And that’s exactly what I did. I curled in next to him and sang him that song, then a few others from my repertoire from his younger days: “Molly Malone“, “Feed the Birds“, and “Shenandoah”. I think he was asleep after two songs, but I didn’t care. I wanted to linger. Then, I crept out of his room and down the stairs. In the kitchen, I went to the cabinet and opened the W on my pillbox. More certain about things than I’d been in weeks.

“Trick-or-treat, smell my feet, my son’s gonna need therapy!”

Halloween season is finally over! If you are of a certain age, you remember when Halloween lasted a day. Just one day. Now it seems like everywhere you turn there’s a hayride to climb or a pumpkin to carve. When we were young, there weren’t aisles and aisles of candy and costumes and decorations in every store on every other corner. I swear, Target‘s Halloween section was as big as the entire A&P of my youth.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Halloween, and we had fun this year, but I am pumpkined out.

The weekend before trick-or-treating we took the boys on a moonlight hayride at a local farm. There were rolling fields and 300 year-old oak trees, and a beautiful creek–Prophecy Creek. The hayride led us to a roaring bonfire, where we drank hot chocolate and cider, painted pumpkins, and listened to a storyteller regale the crowd with stories that were just this side of spooky. It was a crisp night, and the clear sky dazzled with stars. It was a perfect way to get us into the Halloween spirit. But, of course, we couldn’t leave well enough alone.

There is a house right up the road from us that has a huge old barn on its property. For the past three years, they have created a “haunted” barn and people have raved about it. I couldn’t get a read on if it was too scary/gory/hellish from people’s comments, and the kids at the boys’ school were talking it up this year. As with many things, the people who were willing to be spooked surprised me. Like the little girl in Owen’s class who went through the barn last year, in second grade, while her two brothers, one several years older, backed out. I don’t say “chickened out” because I am a recovering chicken, and frightening images can do a number on someone–I know they did a number on me. (Note: I still can’t even watch the preview for the Carrie remake as I am still scarred from the original).

We drive by this barn multiple times a day, and this year we toyed with the idea of going. Owen, our older son, seemed game from the start, his brother Hayden seemed less so. Perhaps emboldened from our time spent out in the night, we decided we would try the scary barn after the hayride. We met some friends there –a father and son. The son had attempted to go through the barn two previous years. This was the year he would make it.

In the end, Owen backed out (could have inherited my chicken gene), so Pam stayed with him while Hayden and I went in with the other father and son. BIG MISTAKE. WE’RE TALKING PSYCHOLOGICALLY SCARRING. It’s a barn. I thought we would just walk from one end to the other and see various scenes partitioned off. No! This thing had scaffolding, winding staircases, three floors of bizarre terror, hidden doors, narrow paths, and black curtains that clung to our bodies. I felt like I was in every teen slasher movie from the eighties with a dash of Apocalypse Now thrown in for further damage–and all the while I had my seven-year-old buried in the pit of my arm. I tried to shield him from so many things–but he saw more than enough. Here’s a bright idea: perhaps I should have gone through on my own first to judge the fear factor. Had that epiphany two days after the fact. Sometimes, I am amazed at my thick head. “Oh, right, I’m the adult in charge!”

Hayden was very brave. He even guided us through one of the rooms when I was confused. And he held it together until the very end, when we spied the exit and he ran toward it and cried. Hard. Like he was auditioning for the role of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz : “I do believe in spooks, I do, I do, I do…”

Before we even got home, I gave Hayden five bucks for making it all the way through, for there was no turning back once we were in there. Then at home I gave him cookies AND ice cream–trying to wash away his fear-soaked tears with some sugar. And I stayed with him in his bed that night, upon his request. Surprisingly, he slept soundly through the night. The next day he was even bragging a little about it to our neighbors, but I could see he was still freaked out by what he saw. By the end of the weekend it seemed like a distant memory, much to my relief.

The next day, he came running up the driveway from the bus, waving a notebook in his hands. It was his journal from school. “I snuck it home ’cause I wasn’t finished writing my story.”  “Oh, what is your story about?” I asked. “It’s called ‘The Barn of Terror’!” he proclaimed with the pride of a survivor. That made it official. The night of frights left an indelible mark. I felt like a bad parent. I know that many bizarre sights await my sons, I just wished I hadn’t been responsible for my youngest one’s worst scare in his life. Here, you read it and tell me if the scars will linger, as I fear they will.

Now, without further adieu, I give you Hayden’s story: (Note his use of eery onomatopoeia–DON DON DON!!!!)

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Chapter 1 The Terrifying Barn

I was at Prophecy Creek then I went to the DON DON DON terrifying barn.

I waited in line with my friend Thomas then it was my turn DON DON DON.

I went in and there was blood dripping down the wall. My dad didn’t see it.

There were fake skeletons hiding behind

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a fake potion. Oh, and we had a line it went

my dad, me, Thomas, and his dad. We saw a person chained

to something with fake blood on him and he was

yelling, “Help me!” I was like “Get me out of here!”

There was a goblin shaking jail bars that scared the

heck out of me. I almost fainted!It was so scary that

when I came out I started to cry.

photo 4

Chapter 2 Can’t Sleep

I said, “There is no favorite part for me.”

I got $5 for doing it, then I had $16.

My dad said, “You can have whatever you want.”

It ends there. He ran out of steam, I guess. It’s been a week

and he appears to be unscathed from the whole thing.

I just wonder what he will be like next year, when the sign appears outside the barn. Perhaps he and Owen will walk up to it in a few years with their friends. They’ll probably go repeatedly like the kids next door do. Whatever happens, I know one thing for sure. There’s no way in hell I’m going back in. Once is enough for me.

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.

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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

Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man: The Death of Vanity

photo (36)

For those of you new to my blog (welcome:). This is part of a series that I do, chronicling the doodles that my sons draw of me.

I hate to admit it, but I’m vain. I want to be good looking. Sure, I look like every other white, bald, middle-aged man with glasses, but I do not imagine myself to be as frightening as–well, as my son’s latest rendition of me. Now, you may not believe it, but I do not solicit these drawings–I’m not trying to pile on the pain that has already occurred via my sons’ pencils. Yet, each time the boys draw me, I am hopeful. Not anymore. This picture is ghastly.

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The other day, I asked Owen to take a break from TV. He thought of his options, and then said “Oh, I know. I’ll draw you ‘Owen style.'” I fell for it. I actually thought this meant “cool”. When he ran in to show me the picture, I threw up a little in my mouth. The egg head. The weird tufts of hair. A frigging bow tie–he’s never seen me in a tie, let alone a bow tie. And the mouth. I looked like the saddest, most pathetic person on the planet. (I looked like the person who just found out that they look like this!!)

“Here you go, Dad!”

“Whoa!” Swallow throw up. “This is Owen style, huh? That’s interesting, buddy.” I guess Owen style means draw a caricature of my dad where his inner fears are all manifested on the outside. I have to say, I did like that he gave me some muscles–even if they were bulging out of a green blazer that wouldn’t have fit me when I was his age.

But, this picture served as another reminder–my concern for my looks is futile. My vanity is in vain.

The death knell of vanity rang again a few days after Owen’s latest masterpiece. One of my new freshman classes was starting to feel comfortable with me–maybe too comfortable. During a break in the lesson, one of the girls says, “You look like someone…” Whenever I hear these words, I cringe. It is NEVER good. She continues. “You look like the guy from the movie UP,” she blurts out. “The boy scout?” I ask, willing to take the insult if it makes me appear thirty years younger. “No, the old man–like, a younger version of the old man,” she clarifies, as if it will Pixar-Disney-Company-Up-moviemake a difference to me. Oh, I look like the senior citizen, the grumpy septuagenarian. I just smile, nod, and stagger towards the podium, trying to remain composed and continue with the lesson. “No!” a shout is heard from the other side of the room–this time a boy. “I finally realize who you look like.” He points at me, not in a mean way, but in a way that emphasizes his satisfaction of solving the mystery. “You look like. . .THE GRINCH.” I kid you not readers. The Grinch. “Yeah, I do look like the Grinch,” I say. Dadicus Grinch.

RIP Vanity.

Flying the Friendly Skies–Yes, this IS a feel good story that involves air travel!

As the boys get older, air travel becomes easier. We load them up with Motrin for their ears, sugar for their mouths, and every electronic device their grubby hands can hold, and before we know it–we’re there.

We all know how much flying sucks, and anyone who has to travel with kids is exponentially cursed. I have referred to vacations with children simply as HELL in a different location. Two years ago, we flew to Disney World in a horrible storm. It was incredibly bumpy, and both boys were screaming and crying so loudly that I yelled out, “Would someone shut those kids up?” Those around me laughed nervously. It was such a chaotic landing that I was actually hoping the plane would crash and put me out of my misery.  We landed safely, as you’ve probably guessed, with both boys huddled on the floor–yes, the floor of our row, and Hayden passed out asleep from the trauma of it all.  Welcome to “the happiest place on Earth.”

The day we left for St. Thomas was bright and sunny with a clear blue sky. The boys acted like old pros, having flown half a dozen times in their lives. It wasn’t the nightmare I’d remembered.  It helps that people are nicer to you when you fly with kids. The TSA agents let you go in a special line, people let you board before them on the plane, and even the flight attendants  seem nicer to you when you have kids–they know! As we walked onto the plane, one of the female attendants greeted the boys and was drawn to the colorful array on Owen’s wrist. “Cool bracelets!” she said. “Thanks,” he replied. “Where did you get them?” “I made them.” “Wow, very neat.” Nice lady. She made the boys and me feel instantly relaxed as we made our way to the very back of the plane, aka turbulent central. PAUSE…

download (2)The next part of our story is brought to you by Rainbow Loom–the “IT” accessory this summer. Invented by someone who probably has cases of leftover silly bands from 2010’s craze. Theseimages are the hottest item among kids 5 to 15. Guys and girls alike wear them with a sense of entitlement. For those of you of a certain age–think back to the frenzy involving summer’s hottest must-have–the pet rock, for example, or the invisible dog on the leash. Hayden received the Rainbow Loom as a gift for his birthday and both boys have been looming ever since.  My wife and I have even been sporting them with our beach wear. We. Are. Cool.

As the flight attendant, Patty, serves us our “free” drinks, she says “And these are for the guys with the cool bracelets.” We smile, and I hint to Owen how it might be nice if he gave her one. He contemplates it, then it’s forgotten for a little while. The plane lands. The flight was smooth and uneventful.  As we make our way to the front and say goodbye to the flight staff, I watch Owen peel a bracelet off his wrist and hand it to Patty. “Would you like to have one of these?” “Oh my gosh! Really? You are very sweet. Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” Everyone is smiling. Patty seems amused and surprised at this small gesture. I pat Owen’s shoulder as we walk down the stairs, “Proud of you, Owen.”

Flash forward one week. We have throughly enjoyed our stay in the Virgin Islands. We are relaxed, tan, well fed and rested. Yet, as we make our way through the airport to return home, my mood quickly sours as I am reminded just how shitty air travel has become: the computer at self check-in that doesn’t work; the customs card I need to fill out even though I never left the US (It’s called the United States Virgin Islands, dammit); the TSA agent yelling his friendly reminders about removing all lap tops; the customs agent who acts annoyed with us for not having the boys’ birth certificates even though we were told we didn’t need them; Hayden, our seven-year-old, who can’t seem to remember our phone number or his birthdate when grilled by said agent; having to take off our shoes; the guy behind me pushing my plastic bins on the conveyor belt when I’m still unloading my pockets… By the time I reach the waiting area, I am in a foul mood. Countless hours of sun and fun seem to be a distant memory. I need a drink!

As we step onto the plane, our eyes widen. “Helloooo!” It’s the same flight attendant from our trip down, Patty. In fact, it appears to be the same flight crew. “I remember you,” she says to Owen. Owen blushes. Throughout the entire flight, Patty dotes on us. When she serves our drinks, she greets us with “and what can I get for my three favorite guys?” We all smile broadly. I respond, “We’ll take an apple juice, a Sprite, and a  Bloody Mary for me.” (Hey, it’s the end of my vacation). As I go to hand her my credit card, she says, “This one’s on me.” I protest. “No, this is for having such nice boys. I’ll be back in a few with cookies.” This makes the boys lift their heads out of DS land–cookies! I spend the next few minutes trying to impress upon Owen how cool this experience is. “Do you believe this? You never know when you will meet someone again. That’s why it’s important to be nice…to do nice things for people. It makes them want to do nice things.” I want to tell him all my favorite sayings on the subject–about crossing the same bridge, about karma, about the kindness of strangers, and paying it forward. I resist such pontificating, but he gets the message loud and clear. He understands. I see it on his face when he comes back from the bathroom. “These are from Patty,” he says holding a big can of Pringles. The same look returns when we are leaving the plane and Patty gives him a bag of treats in a special airline bag. “Be sure to share this with your brother.” “I will.” I am so dumbfounded by all of this kindness, that I lamely try to explain it to the couple behind us. They smile and nod. I want everyone to know. I want to shout it: “Be nice, people! When you’re nice it makes others nice!”

I’ve thought about this experience for the last few days. I love that Owen was taught such a valuable lesson, one I believe will have a lasting impression on him. I am reminded that the smallest gestures can have an impact beyond one’s understanding. I am grateful for all the Patties out there who have to endure a lot of unkindness in their jobs, and through it all they smile and show they care. I have never flown first class, but that day we were treated as such.

So, that’s my feel good story. We had a wonderful trip to an exotic island, yet my highlight occurred in the airport. For those of you who would like a little glimpse into our time there, I leave you with Hayden’s first grade report on our vacation. Although written before we left, it’s amazing how accurate his predictions were–all except room service. I’ve never had room service in my life, so I’m a little miserly about letting them have it. Is that unkind?

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st thomas etc 600These smiles make me forget the Hellish parts:) Note Hayden’s bracelets.