love

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:

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And in return, I got this:

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To which I said in an annoyed tone:

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To which Hayden responded:

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“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.

Love

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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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Swimming in Loch Ness

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I try to be very calm in my approach to life–at peace with the world, aware of the positive forces in my presence, appreciative of the beauty and joy that surround me. But try as I may, the anger seems to dwell just below the surface. On the outside I am tranquil, but on the inside, I am one negative encounter away from reeling. Emotionally, I feel like I am floating along on a raft in the warm water on a sunny day–on Loch Ness. The surface is smooth, it beckons me to relax, but the prehistoric monster lurks just beneath, waiting to rear its long neck and swallow me whole. Curse you Nessie!

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The reminders of this struggle bombard me daily.

After school, I happily make the boys a snack, glad to have this time to unwind with them at the kitchen counter. THEN, I spy some jerk out the window speeding down our street. I immediately seethe, envisioning myself chasing down the car, climbing on the hood, stomping in the roof, and yelling:

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At a recent basketball game for my 9 year-old, I try to be supportive of all the kids–even cheering when the other team sinks a great shot. But there, on the bleachers, is one dad–only one–who keeps barking at his son for all the wrong things he is doing. I try to ignore him, but his negativity gets the best of me. I fantasize about walking over to him and screaming: 

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Ahhhh. The rage subsides, but it leaves a sting.

These dream-like confrontations make me feel better momentarily, but then deflated in the long run. I cannot be so confrontational in life–even if only in my mind. Too often, I feel like I got my approach to parenting not from Dr. Spock or Dr. Phil, but from Dr. Banner–you know, David Banner, aka The Incredible Hulk (Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.)

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But, every so often, the world teaches me a valuable lesson about this struggle. Such a reminder occurred the other day when my boys were sledding in the fields behind our house.

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I wait for a groan, but I’m met with  enthusiasm.

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It was idyllic. The dogs frolicked through the white, powdery trails, and I could hear the boys’ shouts of delight as they raced down the hill. The air was crisp and the sun danced through the barren branches. I became more elated with every step.

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As I made my way out of the woods, I saw that more kids had joined my two–about seven in all.

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I wanted the dogs to remain off leash, so I continued to watch the sledding action from afar. Owen (9), was now attempting to ride his snowboard–something he has adapted to quite nicely. As he came down the slope, I noticed he fell right after he passed two older boys–middle schoolers, perhaps.

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No parent likes to see his kid fall, but I was proud he got up right away to try again. My radar was raised, though: “Who are those kids? I don’t recognize them.” I watched him trudge up the hill for another attempt. The same thing occurred–he cruised down the trail effortlessly, only to fall immediately after he passed the two boys, who erupted into some kind of shout when he tumbled. My mind raced: Those #@!@##$$#@%! They’re making Owen fall. They’re teasing him and making him self-conscious, and then laughing when he hits the ground. JERKS!

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I decide I will get closer and yell at them. Something like, “Yo, knock it off! At least he’s trying. I don’t see you two making any attempts! Leave him alone!”

I rehearse my diatribe in my head, reminding myself not to call them any names, and then I get distracted by one of the dogs–it seems Huck has chased after a deer.

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By the time Huck comes back, Owen has switched to the sled again, and seems content. I call over to them, trying to detect any stress in his voice. “You guys ready?”

“No, Dad! Can’t we stay–just a few more runs?”

“Okay!” I am relieved–and those two punks should be, too. Lucky to be spared of my wrath.

On the walk home, the boys are cold and snow-caked. They each hold a dog leash while I carry the sled and snow board. I try to get a sense of what happened with the other boys.

“Did you know any of those kids?”

“No,” they reply.

“Were they all nice?”

“Yeah,” they say.

As if I just thought of it, I say, “Hey, I saw you fall a couple of times when you were on your snowboard after you made it all the way down the hill.”

“I know. Those guys were trying to teach me how to stop,” Owen replies.

“How. To. Stop?”

“Uh-huh.”

“They were helping you?”

“Yeah, but it’s really hard to learn how to stop. Every time I tried, I’d slide out of control, and we’d just all crack up.”

“Oh. Well, that’s cool. I’m glad they could give you some tips.”

They were trying to help. They were teaching him. They were laughing WITH him.

SIGH.

Water splashes me from Nessie’s tail as he swims back under the surface–I’ve spared you THIS time, it seems to say. But what about next time? I think.

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Why do I constantly see the conflict in everything?

When it comes to parenting, there is a fine line between protecting and over-protecting our children. I am aware that I must teach my sons to address their own conflicts in life. I cannot fight their battles for them. But more importantly, I want to instill in them a sense of awareness: not to view the conflict in everything, not to feel constantly embattled.

The best way to teach this is by example. If I continue to allow anger to thrive, I will never be able to fully enjoy where life is leading me.

I want this sledding incident to serve as a reminder for me. I want to recall it the next time I am quick to judge a situation.

 But most importantly, I want to find a new lake to rest on–one that doesn’t house monsters–real or imaginary.

Take that, Nessie!

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MEET THE CARTOONIST: Jimmy Murphy
When he’s not performing Shakespearean Sonnets at The Great Wall of China, Jimmy Murphy draws everything from the creatures that haunt his imagination, to the ones that haunt his 9th grade reading curriculum, to the squishy noseless people like those seen on this website [figure1]. Although not yet at the peak of his popularity, artistically or high schoolistically, this fourteen year-old has been drawing since he could hold a crayon–the first recorded drawing being a rainbow–[figure 2]. Jimmy’s artistic influences include Shawn Coss, Gris Grimly, and himself. He enjoys reading a good book, ranting about things he hates, raving about things he likes, sleeping, and can be endlessly entertained with a label-maker [figure 3].
[1] Jimmy.1 (1)      [2] Jimmy.2        [3] Jimmy.3 (1)

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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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.

You are a Crusader

The runner’s high kicks in at the one mile marker. My brain buzzes and the tiny hairs on the nape of my neck tingle. I am euphoric.

For the second year in a row, as many as the race has been held, I am participating in a 5k in my hometown: The St. John of the Cross Crusader Challenge. St. John of the Cross. The parish where I spent 8 years of grade school under the tutelage of Immaculate Heart nuns. Where I was an altar server, a mass lector, and a parishioner through college. The place of my brother’s wedding, my father’s funeral. This place holds a lifetime of memories–from what is now a lifetime ago.

My mother asked me to do the race last year. Said I was the only one she could count on to participate. I caved to her request and she missed the whole thing–arriving an hour after the race finished. When she would complain how her other children didn’t even bother to show up, I reminded her that neither did she. “Oh, well…” she’d say.

I have trouble visiting home. For one, my mother sold our house and now lives in an apartment. Truth is, though, I wasn’t sad. It was such a small house–a twin. And there were nine of us living in it. And there was always chaos and turmoil. Once, when I was driving to the nearby mall, I took my son, Owen, who was about four at the time, down the street where I grew up. “That’s where Daddy lived!” I said, pointing. “In the yellow and white house, Daddy?” he asked. “Just the yellow side, Honey.” I said, somewhat bitterly. Mr. Onebedroomforfiveboys trying to explain the concept of a twin home to his son, Mr. Ownroominafourbedroom Colonial.

The homecoming is bittersweet. Bitter because the school is closed–has been for several years, and the parish membership is waning, as well–a reflection of many, once-thriving Catholic churches and parochial schools. Sweet because I see many familiar faces and have many fond memories of the years I spent traipsing back and forth to school, playing on those fields, praying in those pews. The nostalgia overwhelms me. I can map out every classroom I was taught in and recall the teachers as well. First grade, second room on right in the primary hall, Sister Ann George; Second grade, opposite end of primary hall, second classroom on the left, Sister Joseph Agnes…

As I enter the auditorium, I am greeted by many of the mothers whom I know. Several of my mom’s best friends are assisting with registration, t-shirts, directions. My mom is nowhere to be found. She’ll show up late again, I think. The orange glow from the fluorescent lights sends me back in time– to performing on the stage, playing basketball for the intramural teams, attending the parish Christmas bazaars, even winning a pinewood derby for my Cub Scout pack. I move outside to the “playground”; the blacktop where I enjoyed many games of tag, wall ball and ring out. There is no play set–no swings or slide–those were only for public school kids. The once-firm macadam is now rubble, the faded hop-scotch numbers barely recognizable. I pass the steps where the fifth and sixth graders would line up–the steps from which baseball card collectors would toss “doubles” to anxious kids–right next to the “Spit Pit”, concrete steps leading to a cellar, where much coveted cards would be thrown, and some would risk a saliva attack to claim a prized player–a Greg Luzinski or Steve Carlton. I do my pre-race stretching on another set of steps, where I recall clapping the erasers in many grades–I can almost taste the chalk dust in the air. There are times, like now, when my mind plays tricks. Where I feel like I am seeing this through the eyes of a 7, or 10, or 12 year-old. So little has changed around this campus physically, yet, when I snap back to present day, I realize, so much in me–and the world– has changed.

There are about a hundred people at the starting line–a mix of walkers and runners. There is a Mummer’s String Band Quartet playing Dixieland music, and the fire station has brought a truck to display the American flag. One girl sings the National Anthem while the rest of us are awkwardly quiet. This feels like small town America to me, both in the sense that there is the unspoken fear that these towns are an endangered species–swallowed up by all the McMansions and the effects of the recession, and in the sense that there is an abiding sense of hope that good, decent people will continue to gather, will continue to rally, and support one another and live upstanding lives.

The pastor says a prayer of thanks. And then the race begins.

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

My latest running song is “Wake Me Up” by Aloe Blacc and Avicci. I play it several times when I run. The beat is great for pacing and the lyrics captivate my mind:

Feeling my way through the darkness
Guided by a beating heart
I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start
They tell me I’m too young to understand
They say I’m caught up in a dream
Well life will pass me by if I don’t open up my eyes
Well that’s fine by me

So wake me up when it’s all over
When I’m wiser and I’m older
All this time I was finding myself, and I
Didn’t know I was lost

Before today, the lyrics made me think of parenting. How parenting is like feeling my way through the darkness. How none of us knows where the journey will end–or for whom it will end first. The lyrics are almost like a dialogue between a parent and a child–to me–because that’s where I am in my life. But today, I am seeing things through the eyes of my younger self. I am the child, yet, I’m wiser and I’m older. I feel this dance between my selves take shape early on in the race, and find myself switching perspectives throughout. I pass the tree that we planted in eighth grade–thirty some years ago–and think that it should be bigger. I run along the sidewalk where I was once a safety–I loved wearing that neon badge. I see the church spire in the distance, and reflect on how much my religious life has changed in the past decades. How I no longer go to church, or consider myself a Catholic, and yet how I’ve never felt more at peace and less fearful in my life. I may not be religious anymore, but I am spiritual; I feel blessed in so many ways.

All this time I was finding myself, and I didn’t know I was lost.

I hear these words as I enter Roslyn Park–a childhood hangout for sports and trouble making. A woman holds up a sign to encourage the runners. It reads: “You are a crusader.” My eyes sting with tears. I am so moved by this statement. I feel like a crusader. I feel like I have fought to be where I am in my life– to make peace with my past and try to be a good man. To have authentic relationships in my life. To live in the moment with my wife and kids. To be true to myself.

Each of us is on a path, and so many stops seem predetermined for us. I think about what I can control–very little but my reaction sometimes. I know all this, and yet, I think of how frustrated I’ve been the last couple days. I think about my mother.

The other day I was reading a book that described an “adult relationship” with one’s parents. I was completely baffled by the term: A-D-U-L-T Relationship? “Is that possible?” I thought. It mentioned foreign concepts like “boundaries” and “privacy” and “independence”.     I was dumbfounded.

I love my mother. I really do. But sometimes I think that’s the problem. Love confuses things. It can weigh upon a person. And if that love just happens to be Catholic, it is wrapped very tightly with guilt and shame and fear and more guilt. My mother is obsessed with death (for more on that, read this). She cannot get enough of bad news. I have told her this makes me uncomfortable. I have asked her not to talk about certain things in front of the kids –like DEATH–yet she cannot seem to help herself. The other night I invited her for dinner. Here are some highlights from her visit:

Two minutes into visit:

MOM: There was a guy on Katie (Couric) today with no arms who painted the most beautiful pictures. You should bring them up online and show the boys. (My son’s look at their arms, and then at me).

ME: Oh, wow. That’s sounds incredible–but they’re about to start homework.

MOM: And Katie asked him how he eats, and he said he eats with his feet. (Now worried that we’re not paying attention, or horrified enough, or grateful enough for having all of our limbs, she deliveries a tidbit to each of us) And Hayden (7), he says he washes his feet before meals the way other people wash their hands. (Hayden looks at his hands, then his feet). And Owen (8), he showed her how he puts food in his mouth with his feet (Owen puts down the apple slice he was about to eat). And Michael (aging rapidly), he brushes his teeth with his feet, and writes with his feet, and…Oh! And she also had a woman on who was shot in the face and she–

Me: MOM!!! Please! They don’t need to hear this stuff.

Mom: (feeling wounded) Well, you should at least check out the guy’s paintings.

Me: Okay, boys, let’s start your homework. Come on over here, Mom. Want some coffee? …

Twenty minutes in:

Mom: I told you about my friend Peg’s son, right?

Me: No.

Mom: Dropped dead at work. They think it was an aneurysm.

Me: That’s terrible, Mom.

Mom: Yeah. Forty-eight. You never know.

Thirty minutes in:

Mom: (excitedly) Michael, guess who died?

Me: Who?

Mom: Helen Planter (a lady who worked at the school where my father was Athletic Director). She was ninety-three.

Me: Oh, boy. That’s a long life.

The night continues with two more deaths, a few cancer scares, and the latest update on her doctor’s visits. There is also the tenuous topic of family.

My family is a collection of strained relationships. I gave my mom a book a couple weeks ago entitled Make Peace With Anyone. When I ask her if she read any of it, she replies, “I tried to, but you know I’m not good with that sort of stuff.” “What, PEACE?” I think.  I do not think everyone in my house has been on speaking terms since the Carter Administration. Each decade gets a bit worse. Currently, I have relationships with three out of six of my siblings. This inability to communicate seems to have been inherited from my parents. I am sad by this, but I realize that being invested in other people’s lives is not always possible. Again, boundaries. Who knew? My mom tries to plead her case about disputes she is having. “I could be dead in two weeks,” she says, playing the victim. “Any one of us could be dead in two weeks, Mom. Any one of us.”

By the time she leaves, I am exhausted. Pam can see it in my face. There is a weariness. I am spent. I would love to have a nice visit with my mom, but instead I become anxious, angry, and more aware of that funny mole on my neck (“You never know,” I can hear her say).

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

As the race continues, I find myself becoming more exhilarated with every step. The air is crisp, and the autumn sun makes the leaves shine with extra brilliance. I come to the end of the park, and look at the field where my dad coached township football. I give a nod to the field: “You loved that game, Dad”, I think, and look up to the sky. I am thankful for a purely positive memory of my father. I feel great coming to the end of the second mile. All that has burdened me this past week seems to be lifting. I think: So, you’ll teach your children to be lifelong friends. You’ll show them that love is not always easy, but it’s always there for them. You will strive to have adult relationships with them when they are grown. 

I am approaching the most challenging part of the course–Grisdale. Grisdale is a monster of a hill. Everyone in a five-mile radius has a story about Grisdale. About soaring down it on a bike, or a skateboard, or a sled. It is steep, and I am about to climb it. Anxiously, I begin the ascent. I am a few yards up the incline, when I see a car trying to come down the road. It seems to be diagonal–taking up most of the street. The driver is attempting to turn, but racers keep moving around the car. I am instantly annoyed. What the hell is this person doing? Bad enough to be driving through the race, but this person is clueless. The driver seems paralyzed. I look at the car in disgust. I am now close enough to see the driver. It is a woman. It is an older woman. It is my MOTHER.

As a runner who happens to teach English, I am constantly made aware of the metaphors that the running life will present to me. This one’s a doozy. My friggin’ mother is blocking up the entire road of the hardest part of the race. She is an obstacle–my obstacle–stuck in the middle of the road. Wreaking havoc and causing panic. I feel my resentment build. But then, I check myself. “STOP!” I say to myself. “Stop it! This is your mother. If you keep viewing her as an obstacle, she will forever be your obstacle.” When I’m wiser and I’m older... I shift my focus. My mom is here, right in front of me, at the hardest part of the race. And she is a sign of support–encouragement. “Go, Michael!!” I hear her yell. I run up to her car and high five her through the window. “Thanks, Mom!” I say. Then, I make it up the hill faster than the year before. The end of the race is in sight.

Having to climb that beast means that I am now at the top of the highest point in my town. The view is expansive–breathtaking. On a clear day, I could see Philadelphia from here. I charge down the hill and round the corner where I spy the finish line. My mom is already there, waiting for me.

I do not stop immediately at the finish line–I need to walk and catch my breath. By the time I get back to the crowd, my mom has already called my cell phone. “I thought you left,” she says. “Really?” I say. I give her a hug. I am glad to be here with her on this crisp morning in October. I feel like although it is rather limited, I was able to go home again. My mom brags to her friends about me running. “Only one of my kids who could do that,” she says. I feel sorry for my brothers and sisters. Then I hear her start to talk to one of her friend’s daughters. “I give the shirts out at the race for that little boy who died,” she begins. I cringe.

Boundaries, Michael. BOUNDARIES.

Caution: Lifeguard on Duty Will Break Your Heart.

It is the summer of 1977. Our nation has finally recovered from all of the hullabaloo surrounding The Bicentennial. Disco Fever will soon take to the dance floor as everyone tries to imitate John Travolta‘s finger pointing. And WiFi 92 FM still can’t get enough of Paul McCartney and The Wings singing about “Silly Love Songs“: You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs…But I look around me and I see it isn’t so…

 I find this song rather fitting because, you see, I am in love. Yes, I am eight years old, and I have fallen in love. Her name is Lynn. She is sweet, pretty and kind. Her brown, shoulder-length curls are sun-kissed with streaks of blonde; her long limbs are the color of caramel; her smile, electric. Lynn is probably around twenty, but age does not matter. I love her, and that’s all there is to it.

swim-19918_640I met Lynn at our swim club, Sunny Willow. She is a lifeguard there. I watch her sit atop the chair, ready to risk her life to save another’s. Occasionally, I get up the nerve to smile at her when I walk by her as she switches from guarding the shallow end to the deep end. I may even say “Hi” to her when I am coming back from the snack bar with two fistfuls of Swedish Fish–a penny each, and I buy a dollars worth. Her smile back gives me hope–she looks like the kind of woman who would wait–if the right man boy comes along.

********************

“Michael, you have to take swim lessons this summer.” My mother announces this as we are driving to the pool in our purple station wagon.

“No way! I can swim.”

“Well, you need to get better.  I’m signing you up,” she insists.

I feel a nervous pang in the pit of my stomach. I still associate swim lessons with my horrible incident at the local high school–the one where I went to the bathroom in the pool. (Read about that here). I’ve all but put it out of my memory. I try to relax. After all, I am older and wiser–and in love. Then, I have an epiphany: maybe I will have Lynn as my instructor!

“Okay, sign me up!”

***************************

The list is posted on the bulletin board by the showers. The gods look upon me favorably–Poseidon…Neptune…they’ve felt the pangs of love that I now feel. They know what it’s like to be under a siren’s spell. I see my name on the list, and above it my instructor’s: L-Y-N-N.

For two weeks, I float on air. I jump from my trundle bed and eat my Alpha-Bits with my bathing suit on, anxiously awaiting to be driven to the pool. I spend every weekday morning with Lynn. For forty-five minutes she and I (okay, and about 6 other kids) swim together in the cool morning breeze.

Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs.
And what’s wrong with that?
I’d like to know, ’cause here I go again

I hum the tune and repeat the lyrics in my mind, as I wait at the water’s edge for Lynn to take my arms and bring me out to examine my technique. I lay on my back in the water and feel Lynn’s hands supporting my head. “Kick,” she commands. And I obey. I kick with all my might. I look up at the blue sky, and feel as if I am already in heaven. I wish this moment could last forever. “Good job,” she says, releasing my head, and I swim back to the others, beaming with pride.

I love you, I love you,
I love you, I love you…and I do. I’m not sure what it all means, but I feel the fire in my stomach; I feel my heart beat faster when she is near. And as a result, I want so badly to impress her. To awe her. Maybe it’s foolish to think she can love a scrawny eight year-old, but perhaps she will fall in love with my form. So I swim with all the bravado that my chicken legs can muster, I splash my tiny arms with the might of ten Olympians. Lynn praises me–well, all of us. She smiles, and nods, and says how well we are all doing. And after lessons, I get to hang around the pool all day. I practice the movements as she explained them, and I do so in earnest, hoping she will notice me as she tends to her other life-gaurding duties.

I can’t explain the feeling’s plain to me, say can’t you see?
Ah, she gave me more, she gave it all to me
Now can’t you see,

The weeks go by too quickly, and before I know it, our last lesson has arrived. It is bittersweet. My time with Lynn will be less, but I feel I have greatly improved as a swimmer, and no one can take away this bond we have formed. As I enter the gate for our final class, I run immediately into her: my instructor, my muse.

“Hi, Michael!”

“Hi,” I say, sheepishly.

“I’m glad to see you. I wanted to talk to you about something before our last lesson.”

“Sure,” I say. An award, I think. I’m getting an award!  I have impressed Lynn so much that she wants to reward my efforts. This is the beginning of our future together. We will open a swimming school and spend our summers training kids–underprivileged kids– to be as skilled as we are.

“Why don’t we sit over here?” she asks.

We approach a picnic table and sit across from one another. Her eyes look especially green against the painted tabletop. Her white teeth dazzle me. An award! In my mind, I try to think of the title for my award: Most Improved…no…Fastest Swimmer…no… Most Likely to make the Olympics…I have a dazed smile on my face, but Lynn’s face does not mirror mine. She is not smiling. In fact, she seems to be frowning. I begin to tune in to her words: “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to repeat the lessons. I cannot pass you this time. You’re just not ready.” I say nothing, just nod slowly. “Okay?” she says, tilting her head. “Um-hmm,” I lie. I am not okay. A minute ago I was captain of the swim team, standing on my diving block waiting to take the gold. Now, I am a dejected loser.

Lynn and I get up from the table and make our way to the pool. She puts her arm on my shoulder, but inside I recoil. It’s too late. I cannot bear her touch now. I am nothing but a disappointment to her. I spend our final class togetherswimming-97509_640 sulking. My movements are sluggish, slow. Every splash of water laughs at me mockingly. My heart is too heavy to swim, to float. The woman I love does not love me back–cannot love me back. She cannot even find it in her heart to pass me in swim class.

Love doesn’t come in a minute,
sometimes it doesn’t come at all
I only know that when I’m in it
It isn’t silly, no, it isn’t silly, 
love isn’t silly at all.