parenting

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!

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Throwing Stones

FullSizeRender (13)August, 1973

I am sitting on the curb outside of our house, gathering up pebbles in my tiny hands. I am two months shy of my fourth birthday, but it’s not my birth I am fixated on–it’s the birth of my new brother and sister: twins!

My mother is coming home from the hospital today–having been absent from my life for over a week. Oh, she’s seen me. Dad took us over to the hospital and sat us on a bench in the lobby. “Wave to the camera”, he says. “You’re sure mom can see us?” I ask. “Yes, mom can see you on the TV in her room.” I take his word for it, but it all seems so alien to me.

I miss my mom. The last few days have been a blur. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, has been running the show. She’s efficient–making sure we are fed and dressed–but she’s not very warm. Not the type of grandmom whose hugs you get lost in or wants to shower you with kisses. Still, I can’t complain. Besides, there’s really no one to complain to.

The morning has been a rush of activity; the five of us–my three brothers, one sister and I– are busy getting the house cleaned for mom’s homecoming–with two more kids. My dad seems excited and extra patient with us. I like it when he’s like this.

Bored of my chores, I wander out the door. I tend to do a lot of wandering. I make my way down the driveway. I keep looking up and down the street, half expecting my mother to magically appear.

Our neighborhood is lined with twin houses: driveway, house/house, driveway, house/house… I like where our house is positioned on the street because we are right across from a stop sign. Every car that drives down Thunderhead Road must slow down in front of our house.

I love to steal a glance inside each car; to see if anything dangles from the rear-view mirror (fuzzy dice, a bandana); to overhear a lyric which blasts from the AM radio (Brandy, you’re a fine girl, what a good wife you would be…); to count how many people are in the car, and of those, how many are smoking (three and two); to spy a bumper sticker and pretend I can read what it’s saying (Wi-Fi 92’s gonna make me rich/ Flick my Bic).

But today I am distracted, nervous. I forget what my mom looks like. Plus, I’m about to be replaced as the youngest child–by twins, no less. How can I compete with that? I stand barefoot in the gutter and begin to gather pebbles. I throw a handful in the air, and listen as they rain back down to the ground. After a few throws like this, I see a car headed for the stop sign. I sit my Billy-the-Kid shorts on the curb, grasp some gravel, and wait for the car to pass my driveway. Then, I launch the stones into the air-aiming for the back of the car. As the tiny rocks spray onto the trunk, the sound–an echoing tinkle–is so much cooler. The driver keeps going.

Emboldened by my act of vandalism, I gather another pile, and repeat the procedure as the next car comes to a stop a few feet from me. The sound is just as thrilling and the driver seems oblivious once again. I am getting away with being bad  cool, and it feels exhilarating. As the next car comes, I grab another handful of pebbles, this one a bit larger. I am invincible.

But as they land on the car, the driver turns and stares at me. Caught! Yet, he keeps going. This guy knew what I did and I still got away with it. God, I love America!

I get up from the curb and attempt to find even bigger pieces. How far can I take this? Well, I’m about to find out.

With some larger stones in hand, maybe even a rock or two, I spot a Cutlass gliding its way to the stop sign. I don’t even bother to sit back down, to remain inconspicuous. I simply cock my arm back and launch the handful at the car. The sound is much louder and not nearly as melodic–more like a thud. As I watch the tail lights glow red at the stop sign, I notice they remain on. A woman in dark sunglasses stares straight at me and puts her car in park. As she opens the car door, I sprint into the house and up the stairs.

Curious, I wait at the top step to see what will happen.

Before there is even a knock, I hear my father speak through the screen.

“Can I help you?’ he asks.

My stomach drops. I cover my ears, but remove my hands every few seconds; Her words are distorted, but I am able to piece together her report: a little boy… threw…landed….car windows open……two small babies in the back….could have been…

My dad apologizes on my behalf. He then informs her of his two babies that he will be bringing home in an hour. “I’ll be sure to talk to him about this, and again, I’m sorry.”

In seconds, he appears at the bottom of the stairs. “What were you thinking?” he asks. “I’m just excited for mom to come home,” I reply. “Well, she has enough to worry about today, so why don’t we just keep this between us,” he offers. “O–okay,” I stammer. What? No yelling? No punishment? Maybe having twins around won’t be so bad after all, I think to myself.

“Thanks,” I say.

I remain upstairs for the rest of the morning. I don’t dare step foot outside, on the driveway, for fear I may be drawn in to more criminal activity, or worse, that I might watch a cop car pull up, with dark-sunglass woman in tow, to press charges on me for maiming her children.

The screen door slams repeatedly, as people move in and out of the house. Finally, it squeaks a bit more slowly, and I hear, “Oh my gosh! They’re home!” I watch from upstairs as my mom enters the living room in her sundress with two afghaned bundles. My dad spies me on the steps. His eyes tell me that he has honored his promise–that today is not the day to burden my mother–or him–with such trouble.

I slowly walk down the stairs, planting both feet on each step. Once on the landing, I run over to my mom and bury my face in her side. I am lost in the dangling blankets. I catch glimpses of my new brother and sister: a tiny hand, a fuzzy ear. I peer up at my mom’s face, reassured. She looks just as I remembered her.

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This is my second memory. My first involves me in a high chair talking to the refrigerator and dumping chocolate pudding on my head. But this is the one I recall often.

In childhood, I would usually conjure it if I needed to make myself feel guilty. As a good Catholic, I wasn’t comfortable unless I felt uneasy about something, so this became one of my go-to guilt triggers: “Like that time you almost blinded those children in the back seat of the car…” Such phrases would rattle in my head til I was reassured I was headed to Hell. As a teen, this event took on an Oedipal air: “How ironic would it have been if I blinded two small children on the same day that two small children were finding their way to my house?” Later in life, and most significantly, this event would serve as a reminder that there were times when my dad handled situations with a tenderness and grace that made me feel everything would be okay.

Now, as a father, I find that the most powerful response I can give my sons is one of understanding. When they come to me having done something wrong, consumed by guilt, expecting me to explode, and I simply say, “It’s okay. Everything will be okay,” it’s as if I have just waved a magic wand and made it so.

Such is the power of parenting, of perspective, of the words we choose–or do not choose.

Something to think about the next time you’re about to throw stones.

 

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:

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.

Disney Loves Company

The family Grinch recently endured  survived  returned from a magical trip to Walt Disney World. Truth is, we had a wonderful time. Exhausting, but wonderful. One thing that I noticed was the fact that each day became less hellish. What was met with dread on day one (Yes, we have to take a car, then a tram, then a ferry to the Magic Kingdom…Yes, the wait time for this ride is 50 minutes…Yes, the line to greet Mickey is longer than the length of our home state) was, by day three, met with acceptance, even contentment (Wow, the monorail takes half the time as the ferry…Cool, the wait time for this ride is ONLY 45 minutes…Aww, look at those poor suckers waiting in line for a photo op with Mickey).

But not to worry. This post is not a park-by-park summary of our stay. Rather, it’s a reflection on my first trip to Disney, when I was just about my oldest son’s age–10. For some reason, every experience I have as a dad is reimagined through the lens of myself as a boy.  And as we sat on the plane, ready for takeoff from Philadelphia International, I watched my sons quietly working through the sticker books that their mom makes sure they have for each plane ride. I was impressed with how seasoned they’ve become as airplane passengers. Even though traveling today takes the patience of a saint, it has become somewhat enjoyable as the boys are getting older–maybe not enjoyable, but at least manageable. And it was with this observation that I hearkened back to my first time on a plane, traveling to Orlando, Florida–to visit Walt Disney World.

The year was 1980. A time of feathered hair and large combs peaking from the back pockets of Wrangler jeans. A time when my teenage siblings dabbled with Sun-in and Dexatrim. A time when the ominous face of the Ayatollah Kohmeni stared up at me from our doorstep every morning when our neighbor, Kevin, delivered The Bulletin. A time when a news anchor by the name of Ted Koppel informed the nation each night about America’s hostages. It was during this time of familial and political upheaval that my parents decided to bring us to Disney. ALL SEVEN OF US–nine including them.

Yes, we loaded up our duffel bags and set out for the Sunshine State.

Honestly, I don’t recall much of our actual visit to Disney World, except for the fact that so much that is there today was non-existent: Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Universal…None of those existed yet. But, I do recall our plane trip down there, and  its abysmal aftermath.

I wore my Mickey Mouse shirt–not the t-shirt, but one with pearly buttons that snapped and had little vignettes of Mickey in pioneer gear. I loved that shirt, and felt like Disney royalty wearing it on the plane with my favorite pants, a pair of Toughskin kakhis. We were flying TWA (Trans World Airlines) and my mother assuaged any fears we might have by saying that we were sure to make it there safely since TWA stood for Traveling With Angels. “Do angels hold up the wings?” I asked, nervously. “Of course they do,” she assured me.

Once on the plane, I sat with my sister and brother who were closest in age. The rest of the family was scattered throughout the cabin. Freedom. Such freedom that it felt like I was flying first class. Freedom to order sodas and peanuts, and pretzels, and more soda.

Boy, was flying fun back then! My brother and sister and I just lounged around the seats chewing wads of gum to ward off ear popping. And we struck up a conversation with a girl across our row, who got out of her seat and chatted away with us, all while hanging in the aisle. Each time the stewardess walked by–yes, that’s what they were called back then, stewardesses–I would ask for another drink or snack. She must have liked us, because she obliged every time. I didn’t know what Disney was going to be like, but this plane ride was enough of a highlight for me. “Are you kids behaving?” my mom asked on her way to the bathroom, lit cigarette dangling in her hand. “Yes,” we all said in unison, including our new best friend from across the aisle.

As we approached Florida, the plane began to experience turbulence. The fun was over. Everyone to their seat, lap belts fastened. Once settled in my chair, I felt anything but. The ride turned bumpy and the half-dozen sodas percolated in my stomach with all the peanuts, chips, pretzels, and candy I had consumed in the past two hours.

“I’m going to be sick,” I said, looking at my sister.

“Well, use this!” she said, fetching me the barf bag from my seat pocket. As I struggled to open it, I could feel the bile in my throat. I had seconds to react. Finally, I pried the bag open, and as I pushed my mouth towards its opening, we hit a major air pocket. BUMP! The vomit missed the bag and spewed all over my shirt (Oh, Pioneers, Mickey!) and my favorite pants. I was covered in remnants of our junior happy hour.

“Mom, Michael threw up!” Erin yelled.

“What?” said my mom, a few rows up.

“MICHAEL THREW UP!!”

Thankfully, my mom came back to get me. She and the stewardess walked me to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet while my mom wiped my clothes. The stewardess–she really was an Angel–kept rinsing towels and handing them to my mom. The plane rocked its way to the runway, and I jumped from the tiny toilet seat crammed in the bathroom with my mother and another. “Welcome to Orlando,” a voice sang over the intercom. I stifled a moan.

I exited the plane, damp and smelling of a mixture of Coke, bile, and pretzel salt. I felt groggy. Hungry yet full. Excited and embarrassed. We were in Disney! I had to move on.

After getting the luggage, we made our way to the rental car company. My dad stood at the counter, and 16 eyeballs bore into his back. “What is taking so long?” someone finally whined.

“I’m sorry. There’s been a mix-up,” said the man behind the counter. “You rented a van, and vans are at our other facility. We’ll have to take you there.” He looked at the gaggle behind my father. “All of you.”

All of us AND our luggage. And so ten of us–TEN- squeezed in to a four door sedan. The nine of us and the rental car worker. As we tried to figure out seating, everyone was getting grumpy. My six siblings lapped it in the back seat. My mom sat between the driver and my dad in the front seat. And me? Where was I? I was crouched in the well of the passenger side, scrunched up against the glove compartment, sitting on my dad’s feet while whiffs of evaporating throw up stung my nostrils…

How many people can say they’ve ridden in a car looking up from the glove compartment?

My son’s voice brings me back to the present.”Dad, my ears hurt,” he says as we begin making our descent into Orlando.

“Okay, buddy, do you want some gum?” “I’m chewing gum!” he cries, showing me his mouth. Uh-oh, the meltdown is about to begin.

“Try to yawn…stretch your mouth…hold your breath AND your nose and then blow.” I look like I’m playing charades as I mimic each movement. Nothing is helping and he is inconsolable. He writhes in pain then attempts to kick the back of the chair in front of us, so now I have to hold down his legs. I try to bribe him. Give him candy. I know he’s in pain, but really? Really? This seems a little extreme.

Finally, when it appears he can take no more, we reach an altitude where his ears clear. Ahhh. I can see he’s still upset, and I want to try to make him feel better. I reach for his hand and squeeze it tight. “Did I ever tell you about my first time in an airplane?” I begin. “It was also to Walt Disney World”…

My oldest brother, Charlie, and I. There's my Mickey shirt, pre-tragedy.

My oldest brother, Charlie, and I. There’s my Mickey shirt, pre-tragedy.

 

 

All the kids with my dad before our flight to Disney. My glasses seem to be made out of the same plastic as my bangs.

All the kids with my dad before our flight to Disney. My glasses seem to be made out of the same plastic as my bangs.

All smiles in the park. One of the only pictures I know where I am sporting cleavage.

All smiles in the park. One of the only pictures I know of where I am sporting cleavage.

 

TWA boarding pass. Smoking? YES!

TWA boarding pass. Smoking? YES!

The ONLY picture of our family in front of The Magic Kingdom. The beauty of a Polaroid camera--you know how shitty the picture is instantly!

The ONLY shot of our family in front of The Magic Kingdom. The beauty of a Polaroid camera–you know how shitty the picture is instantly!

Dying to tell you…

I spent Saturday night at my brother’s house with family and friends. His house is always lively, where anyone is welcome, where shouts of playing and laughter echo through the halls–and I’m just talking about the grown-ups. It was a great time, and always fun to catch up with friends new and old.

My mom was there, and also enjoys reminiscing with our friends– the people she watched grow from boys and girls into men and women. One of my brother’s friends, Dom, was regaling us with stories of my dad, and the years disappeared as he recounted spending weekends at our house as a teenager.

As we were leaving, my mom gave Dom a big kiss and said, “Be sure to come to my funeral, Dom?” “Mrs. Trainer!” he replied, shocked, “I’ll see you again.” “I’m only teasing,” she said.  He hugged her tightly. “Well, don’t talk like that!”

But talk like that she does. Daily.

I have been preparing for my mom’s death for as long as I can remember. My mother has always been fixated on death–hers and others. I know the reasons–a father dying in front of her at five; an only child due to her mother’s numerous still-borns.

Sure, I understand why. But that didn’t help my youthful angst. Angst that lie with me in bed each night after kissing my mother and saying, “I love you. See you in the morning.” And her reply: “God willing.” Angst that rode next to me in the passenger seat as I drove to places with my mother’s directions, explained in tragic landmarks: “Go up to the road where that little boy was killed on his bike, and then turn right at the funeral home where Uncle Jimmy was laid out…” Angst that stayed with me for decades–each day a body count from the news she watches, each week a report as to how many people we know–or I do not know, as is often the case–who are sick and dying.

Yet, in my later years, I do not meet her comments with anger or angst. I laugh. And I laughed when she said this to Dom in the kitchen. My mom, the Gram Reaper.

My wife was indoctrinated into my mother’s morbid ways early in our marriage. During that first year, my mom came to our house one Saturday afternoon with coffee and a garment bag. As she handed the bag to Pam, she announced,”This is my funeral dress, hon. I want you to be in charge of it.” Pam laughed and cried at the same moment. I just shook my head and smiled. Yet, that dress has hung in my wife’s closet for over 13 years–it has moved two times with us. Pam has her job.

At school, the teachers marvel when I mention the various paraphernalia I receive from my mom: a handful of “Living Wills” to distribute to my friends; the deed to her cemetery plot; her living will. And most recently, the letter announcing she can officially have her funeral mass at the Villa where she resides in an apartment building run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. “Here you go!” she announces one night while over for dinner, thrusting it towards me with the gusto of a high school senior who has just been accepted to college. “Now, I just need to make a copy for everyone else.” “Why?” I ask. “You didn’t even need to give me a copy. I’m sure Sister would tell me when the time comes.” “I just thought you should have it.” Translation–you may not have thought about my death in the past few days, and I didn’t want you to forget!

If there is one thing that is unforgettable about my mom, it is her passion for all things tragic. She has had her share, as have I, as have all of us. But the funny thing is, the more I have embraced my mom’s sense of the tragic, the more I have made it my job to emphasize the comic. “You’re going to outlive us all!” I say when she hands me the latest item for her funeral. And she just might. She’s beaten both breast and ovarian cancer. But I know that does not comfort her. There’s no fun in dying if no one’s there to mourn.

Last year, after reading the book This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper–a book about a dysfunctional family sitting Shiva–I had an epiphany. I called my mom the next day. “Mom, I have a great idea for your funeral.” “What is it?” she said, excited I had started to take a genuine interest. “Well, you know how Jewish people sit Shiva for seven nights?” “Yeah.” “Well, to eliminate any drama, why don’t each of us take a night–each of your seven kids could have a night where they get to sit with you, and their friends can come and pay their respects. And other relatives can come whenever they like.” “There’s a thought,”she said, but I got the feeling it allowed for too little drama and not nearly enough pageantry. It sounded like the right approach to me, though.

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In the car today, just the two of us, we chat about my brother’s party. “Isn’t Dom funny,” she says, “the way he remembers all those things about being at our house?” “He’s a riot,” I say. “It was good to see him.” Then the conversation quickly turns to death. She begins, “You know, we had a guy in this week from Holy Sepulchre Cemetery–a real young guy, handsome, to talk about planning our funeral costs.” “I know, you told me already. The one Sister had a crush on.” She laughs. “Guess how much less it is to get cremated than buried?” “How much?” “He said seven-hundred dollars.” (I can’t tell if that’s good or bad.) “Oh!” I say, “Are you going to be cremated?” “I don’t know.” Then she launches into a story about someone who buried a box of their relatives ashes on top of someone else’s grave. “Didn’t cost them a thing,” she says. I try to comprehend this logic. “What happens if they have to bury someone else in that grave?” I ask. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says, now wondering.

“So, if you get buried, who will you be with?” I ask, although I should know. The answer comes without pause: “Pop [her stepdad], Daddy, and Phil.” Phil is a neighbor who died in his thirties–long story on how he got to be in the family plot. “Oh, God!” I say. “You can’t be buried with those three–you’ll never rest in peace. That settles it–you’re being cremated.”

We laugh. My mom and I laugh. It may sound like a weird approach to others, but that’s what we do. It’s certainly what I do. And in a strange way it makes me feel closer to her. I don’t shut down when she brings up this sorrowful topic. I no longer yell at her out of fear and confusion. I just acknowledge it, and then try to see it from a lighter perspective. It helps.

As we drive, I feel this sense of satisfaction. My mom and I driving around on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in November.

I try to change the subject so she’s not thinking of her impending demise too much. “So,” I say, “do you have any funerals this week?”

 

Photo: Courtesy of Steve Hardy, flickr.com

 

Wee the People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, how?” I implore.

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Bless America!

 

 

Sunscream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I left the doctor’s office feeling very scared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were we thinking back then? What!?

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

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

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

I did not.

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

Just sayin’.

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