Hayden

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.

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

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.

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

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.

 

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

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:

photo (35)

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.

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

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.

Morning Glories

My heart and mind have been heavy this past week or so, with all of the horrible atrocities that seem to plague children. The Boy Scouts of America are the latest to join the ranks of those leaders who harbored pedophiles and knowingly covered it up.  A young Palestinian girl named Malala Yousufzai is gunned down on her way home from school by the Taliban. Her crime: wanting an education. And just yesterday, much closer to home, news of a twelve-year-old girl from New Jersey abducted and killed at the hands of two teenage boys—brothers. I am sickened and saddened by these situations.  As I commiserate with the rest of society over these despicable events, I am also reminded how we must cherish each day and embrace those we love. Especially our children.

Anyone who has children is used to hearing others remark “how fast it all goes.” And it does!!  That is why I try to be present–every single day–in their world. I want to remember these moments and recall all of the time we spend together. Then, this morning, it happens—I am greeted with a perfect morning. Each encounter was incredible, reaffirming, lyrical, and sweet. It was as if the universe knew that I needed a pick me up. Don’t get the wrong idea, most mornings are not like this. Usually, someone is annoyed. And those in a good mood can instantly turn ugly. But today, today was perfect! Allow me to explain:

6 a.m.   I slam the snooze button. As I try to fall back asleep, I hear Owen (7 ) humming a song in his room while he builds with his Legos.

6: 15     After feeding the cats and dog, I sit in the dark downstairs enjoying my first cup of coffee. Owen comes down the steps, rushes over to me and gives me a big hug and kiss. Kisses from this guy are getting rarer than Haley’s Comet, so I was pleasantly surprised. “Wow, what a way to start my day!” I tell him. He goes bee-bopping down into the basement to play with more Legos.

6:20    Hayden (6) awakens in what seems to be a relatively good mood–it’s a crap shoot with this one. I direct him downstairs to Owen.

6:21    The boys begin to play nicely, and this lasts, uninterrupted, for a good half-hour.

7:00    While I am upstairs shaving, Owen sneaks in to scare me with his Halloween mask–a freaky silver skeleton mask. I feign fright. He then reveals that he has on ANOTHER scary mask underneath his skeleton mask–so people think he’s really scary.

7:05    I catch a glimpse of my wife, Pam, on the steps with Hayden. She is removing an eye lash from his cheek, after which she tells him to “make a wish”. I see him contemplate this task, mouth the words of his wish to himself, then blow away the eyelash with all his might. He runs downstairs. “I made a wish! I made a wish!”

7:07    Owen comes into my room and asks, “Is this how you whistle?” I attempt to instruct him on this once again. “Pucker your lips…Try to loosen your lips…Relax your mouth…Wait, put your top lip over your bottom lip…You’ll get it, buddy.” He scampers away “whistling”.

7:20    Hayden reads off the names of the boys invited to Owen’s birthday party. Pam remarks, “Boy, you seem more excited than Owen!” Owen looks at me and smiles. “He is,” he agrees.

7: 25    As I pour their cereal, Owen asks if he can go to sleep on his own tonight. We have been trying to wean him of some of the bedtime routine for over a year now. He usually insists we stay until he falls asleep. “Are you sure?” “Yeah, I’m ready.” The heavens open up. I hear angels sing from on high. I think to myself, So maybe I can say goodnight like they do on TV? Just tuck you in and leave? Yahoo!

7:30    While the boys eat their cereal and I pack my lunch, I wish Hayden good luck on his Show-and-Tell. “What if everyone hates it?” he asks. (IT, by the way, is a Halloween mouse decoration I bought two years ago after a mouse chased us around the house). “First of all,” I say, “it’s awesome.” “What’s second of all?” he asks. “Second of all, I love it,” I say. “What’s third of all?” he continues.  “Third of all, it’s a funny story.” “What’s fourth of all?” “Fourth of all, your friends are nice.” “What’s fifth of all?” Enter Mommy. “Ask Mommy.” “Ask Mommy what?” she says. I hightail it out of the kitchen.

7:35    As I leave for work, I give Pam a kiss and enter the TV room where both boys are now dressed and ready for school. They are not into kisses these days, so I usually just tousle their hair and remind them to be good for their teachers. Owen says, “Wait!” then runs over, jumps in my arms and plants another kiss on me. “Wow, two kisses today. I am one lucky guy. How about you, Hayd? Can I get a kiss from you?” He just looks at me and shakes his head no. Owen comes running back to me. “I’ll give you one from him, Dad.” And he does. That makes more kisses from Owen this morning than the last 3 weeks combined!

7:40    I drive to work on this autumn morning in a lighter mood. I can’t help but smile as I reflect on all of the small joys that made up this mundane Wednesday morning.

There is a great quote by Robert Brault. It reads: “Enjoy the little things, for one day you will look back and they will be the big things.” I try to remember this often. Today, it was easier to do than other days. And for that I a most grateful.