life

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.

 

Car Talk: Summer 2015

Car_toyDriving my kids around can be such an enlightening experience. As they rapidly grow from children to preteens, I am amazed at how mysterious I find them. What are they thinking? What’s going on in their little minds?

The car affords one of the best places to gain insight into your child–ask any parent. And, since my boys are still relegated to the back seat, at times I feel like a taxi driver, trying to get to know my customers a little better before releasing them back into the world at large.

The boys are in a morning soccer camp this week. We are all feeling the effects of the waning days of summer–not wanting to lose this freedom, yet in dire need of a routine. Because of this contradiction, I find that they and I become irritable as the start of school approaches. Such is life.

But today, on the drive to camp, was one of those days where their thoughts revealed such deep thinkers and observant young minds.

As we rode in unaware silence, Owen (10) offered this view: “So many times, I think about how weird it is that we are here, that we’re alive, since we are all going to die.”

“I know,” I say, “I think about that a lot, too. I think a lot of people do.” PAUSE: Let me take a moment to acknowledge that just a few years ago, my neurotic tendency would have made me say something like, “Well, try not to think about death,” or “It’s best to avoid such thoughts.”  Translation: Just stuff all that dark matter DEEEEEP down inside to feed on your anxieties. But now, I’m not motivated by fear. I welcome these thoughts because I understand they are completely natural and talking about them is healthy.

Hayden (9) becomes excited by this subject. “Yeah,” he chimes in, “how DID the first person come to life?”

“A lot of people think it was God, that he made humans,” says Owen.

Immediately, I counter him, “But, a lot of people also believe in science. Scientists say we came about as a natural development of the environment.” Here, I lag in expertise. “…that with the help of water, cells interacted…” I trail off, surprised at just how daft I am in the theory of evolution, having attained most of my knowledge from the first Jurrasic Park movie.

Owen pipes in, “Yeah, water was key. The body IS made up of something like 75-80 percent water.”

Sounds good to me. I move away from my scientific discourse and advance the subject. “I often think of that movie we saw about the prehistoric family, The Croods.

“Oh, the one where they had to hide in that cave most of the time in order to survive,” says Owen, “but then they start to adventure out and realize all that they were missing.”croods

I love that he remembers the moral of the film.

“Yeah, and how they had to hunt for their food,” I respond. “Could you see us doing that? Imagine how skinny we would all be if we had to hunt and kill everything we ate?”

Owen, who is skin and bones, considers this: “I think I’d be one of our first meals!”

I laugh at this. A strong, hearty laugh.

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A few hours later, I pick the boys up from camp. They are hot and tired. On the way out of the park, I notice a younger couple, on a lunch break from work, leaning up against the hood of their car, arms wrapped around one another, kissing passionately. I look at them and think how fast life moves. How many lifetimes ago was that? Then, I look to the back seat where Owen is watching the same encounter. He is studying their every movement. Half jokingly, I say, “Owen, don’t look at that.” This prompts Hayden to look away from the kids playing soccer and directly at the kissing couple.

“Isn’t it funny,” I say. “When someone tells you not to look at something, what’s the only thing you want to do?”

“Look at it,” say the boys in unison.

“I know,” I say.

“And if a grown up tells you not to look at something, you definitely want to be sure and look,” says Owen. “That usually means that it’s must be something awesome.”

Again, I burst out with a laugh.

Two rides. Two glimpses into the minds’ of the young. Thank God, and/or scientists, for the car!

No, Virginia. No!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pause. Parental glance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, Hayd. No leprechauns.”

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

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

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

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

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Hayden opens his and bursts into laughter.

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Rest assured, he got the Bat Cave that year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gary On My Wayward Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gn.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

And in return, I got this:

gn.3

 

 

 

 

 

 

To which I said in an annoyed tone:

gn.4

 

 

 

 

 

 

To which Hayden responded:

gn.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

“SORT OF!?” I shouted, echoing him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cartoons by the talented artist Aidan Murphy.

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:

photo (51)

“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!

 

 

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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File Under Funny: A Twig Grows in Blue Bell

photo (53)My second-grader, Hayden, came home from school on Friday with a twig sapling to plant in the yard, in honor of Arbor Day. He put it on the patio table, essentially making it the dogs’ toy of the minute. All weekend, he inquired about when we would plant his “tree”. Finally, I broke the bad news. “I think the dogs ate your tree, buddy.” He handled his disappointment quite well.

Today, Hayden walked in with yet another stick sapling to plant. “What’s this?” I asked excitedly. “Mrs. H let me have the class tree.” “Did you tell her what happened?” “Yeah, and she said to take this one.” “What did you say?” I asked, reminding him of his manners. “I said, ‘I guess that’s why they call it a DOGWOOD TREE.'”

If this tree grows to maturity, Hayden will be 105 years-old. Best of luck, Twiggy.

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