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Love

love

I have come to realize that my sons do not say “I love you.”  I am trying to train them to at least respond, “I love you, too.” But lately, I’ve shied away from doing so.

One night, a while back, I was tucking Hayden(7) in to bed and I said, “Goodnight, buddy, I love you.” Silence filled the room. His face was buried in his pillow.   Frustrated, I said, “I love you, too, dad.” Still nothing. I tickled him. He relented. “Sort of”, he mumbled into the pillow. “Sort of?” I shouted back. “Yeah,” he said, “it means a little.'”

For a time, this incident made me sad. He knows I love him, I’d think. I hug him, kiss him, tickle him, and show him affection daily. And I know, deep down, deeeeeeeeeeeeep, deeeeeeeeeeeeeep down, he loves me, too.

Lately, though, I’ve changed my attitude about the lack of “I love yous” I hear.  I’ve had to search for why this affected me so much. There’s the obvious need to love and be loved, but I knew it ran deeper than that.

Why do we say “I love you”? What purposes does it serve? Certainly, it varies from relationship to relationship. Ultimately, however, I think it serves to remind people how much we care about them. But, as I consider this spoken gesture more, I also think it’s a way for us to remind them that they love us, too–or they SHOULD, we think (we hope).

Whenever I tell Owen (9) I love him, I do not get a response, but I feel a sense of acceptance. If I could read his thoughts, it seems they would say something like, “Of course you love me, I’m your son. I’m your first-born. I’m a good kid…but you don’t need to say it all the time–it’s a given. Relax.” Yet, often, when I tell Hayden I love him, there is almost a defiance in his reaction. His mouth turns into a half-smile/half-frown–a frile, if you will. I’m not sure I want to read his thoughts. I think he fights my love–I feel him rejecting this level of emotion because either he doesn’t feel worthy of my love, or he doesn’t want to care about me so deeply–or maybe a little of both.

But the love my boys identify with today, they will remember decades from now.

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I still remember the lunch my mother packed me for my first grade field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. I walked home for lunch everyday, so packing a lunch was a treat. The bag was stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness: a ham and cheese sandwich, potato chips, a soda, cracker jacks AND a candy bar. I knew I had the best lunch in my group. I wanted to shout for joy from the top of the monorail. That day, that lunch made me feel so  special, so loved.

I still remember the time in second grade when I came home with a bad grade on a spelling test. I was so nervous to show my parents. And even though I was supposed to get it signed, I decided to hide it where no one would find it–under the clothes dryer. It was someone’s birthday that night and my grandparents were over for dinner. Towards the end of the meal, it dawned on me that the dryer gets very hot. As a junior neurotic, I decided that my spelling test would catch on fire and burn the house down. I began to cry. “I’ve done something bad–really bad.” My whole family, grandparents included, marched down to the laundry room. My dad laid on the floor and fished the paper out from underneath the dryer. He was not mad at all–about my subterfuge or my poor spelling. He smiled and said, “Next time, just tell us, okay.” “Okay,” I said, whimpering. As we ate our cake, I felt oddly elated–my dad loves me even when I make mistakes!

Both of these memories evoke times when I felt wholly loved by my parents. A very pure, somewhat magical feeling.

I grew up in a house where “I love you” was spoken a lot. Ours was a large family in a small house. Day-to-day, amid the chaos, it was hard to sense the love, but the words were uttered. As we left for school each morning, these three words would be part of the exchange between the seven of us and our parents. And each night, before bed, I would kiss my mom and dad, and say, “Goodnight. I love you. See you in the morning.” My mother would respond with her now-infamous “God willing,” leaving me to conjure her death as I laid down to sleep. My father? I don’t remember his response. I think it varied. But, I marvel at the fact that I kissed him goodnight throughout my childhood, and with every hello and goodbye as an adult.

For me, for my past, love was a spoken reminder. Perhaps the words were said in an attempt to add calm to the fray. Yet, those words hung like an albatross around my neck for much of my life. Often, love felt heavy, sad, anxious, chaotic. Often, love felt conditional.

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To this day, my mother says “I love you,” to me every time we speak. If she calls me four times in a day, she says it four times. In an attempt to not become obsessive about this (which I think makes me more obsessive about it) I purposely do not respond with an “I love you, too” every time she says it–I shoot for fifty percent of the time. I am aware that my mother takes note of this.

Perhaps my refusal to overstate my love stems from the fact that, even now, there seems to be an unspoken obligation with those words, as if love can magically erase all the burdens of our past, or is the antidote for all that ails the relationships in a family. Love cannot. At least the words cannot. As cliché as it sounds, “Actions speak louder than words.” I love my mom, and I know that she loves me, but I’ve realized in life that saying I love you and doing I love you are very far removed.

When I first became a part of my wife Pam’s family, I marveled at the fact that they rarely said “I love you.” It is written in cards, but not said at the end of every encounter. It was as if I were finally connecting all the dots: Hmmm. They don’t go around saying they love each other all the time, but I know they do. They are kind to one another, and respectful of each other’s opinions, and they do thoughtful things for one another–DING! Oh, you can feel it but not have to say it every day, every phone call, every exchange. I found this to be very refreshing.

Pam and I do say it often–even several times a day, which I appreciate, because she is the most important person in my world–my life partner. In that case, I find it strengthens our bond.

As for the boys, I find I say it often to them, and usually there is no response. At first, this made me feel angry, worried. Then it dawned on me–they feel loved. They feel my love. Their needs are being met daily. They want for very little and we spend a good deal of time together, interacting or just in each other’s presence. I believe that structure, that sense of stability, makes these words seem unnecessary to them.  Thus, there is no need for them to say it back to me. For now. For now, they just need to know that they are loved and feel they are loved. And in the end, all of us need to accept that we are worthy of the love we are given.

Once again, having children has taught me valuable life lessons. Kids may be the result of love, but we cannot create life as a way to force someone to love us back. Love is cultivated over time. For a parent, it seems that love begins with an ultrasound. For a child, that love manifests itself in stages. It is our job to teach children how to love, and the best way to do that is to show them. In short, to love them. Unconditionally.

“I love you” can serve as a reminder that you love me, too. Or it can serve as a reminder that you are loved. As a parent, I choose the latter, and I know what the answer is, even if it is unspoken.

Now, I seem to ponder the concept of love more. Whom I love. Who loves me. Not, who I have history with, or who I am in close proximity to, but who I have an abiding emotional connection to and for. It has been a very enlightening journey–emphasis on the lighten. I DO feel lighter. I used to think of love as something that anchored me, like a rock. Now, I try to view love as a feather, as a breath. Light and soft.

 

 

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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 Road to Hell, Part Two

Owen and I stared out towards the road. There was no sign of Hayden. I was trying to determine where he had hidden–I did not feel like walking around the entire building. I was tired of playing Hayden’s game and losing.

We walked to the car and got in. My new car. Ha! It could have been a soap box for all I cared now. The cookie mess in the back didn’t matter now. When your world is about to crumble, nothing matters. NO thing.

My reactions felt surreal. Strange. I was not mad. I was not even scared. I was numb. My heart did not race. I did not sweat. I simply felt like I was hanging in the balance. A minute ticked away. Then another. Surely, if Hayden was hiding he would have come out by now. But what if I drove away and he was left here? What if he darted out to the road when he saw my car leaving? I did not want to be in charge anymore. I wanted someone else to take over.

“Dad, are we going to leave him here?” Owen asked.

“NO!”

“Dad, where is he?”

The anger was back. “I don’t know, Owen. I’m here with you. I don’t know where Hayden is.” I felt bad for saying this, but I was at a loss.

WE got out of the car, and walked towards the road. It was useless. The place was hidden with large pine trees.

“HAYDEN!” I screamed. “HAYYYYYYYDENNNNN!”

Owen and I walked around the building. With every turn we made, part of me expected to find him. To see his devilish grin. To hear his high-pitched laugh.

An elderly couple was strolling the grounds, looking at us oddly. I was in no mood to explain what we were doing. They tried to make small talk. I pretended to not hear them.

We circled the building, and still no sign of Hayden. I contemplated calling 9-1-1. The panic started to rise in me. How did things get out of my control so quickly? I waited to hear the screeching of brakes on the road, or the whir of an ambulance siren, or the scream of a driver who had just hit a little boy. My boy.

And the moments stretched out infinitely. The whole thing transpired over ten minutes, but it felt like hours. And within each minute, my mind toyed with me. My thoughts became desperate:

Well, here it is. The tragedy that will define the rest of your existence.

Why do people have kids? Why did I think I could do this job? I’m not good at it. I’m not the right man for it.

We bring these creatures into the world and we fool ourselves into thinking we are in charge, yet we have no control. They are their own keepers, we just bear witness. Yet, from the moment they enter this world, our primary goal is to keep them alive. We hover and they push us away. Hover/Push…

I thought about human nature, and our inclination to judge others. I thought about how I used to read stories and judge. How could someone forget their child in a car? Well, if you’ve ever been a sleep-deprived parent, then you know. How could a child just disappear? It happens. IT HAPPENS. It happened to me moments ago. When you become a parent, you stop asking how something could happen.

“Get back in the car, Owen. We have to go home.”

“He didn’t walk home, did he, Dad?”

My answer was silent.

I sped home, conscious of the hazards that lined the road. The uneven shoulder. The horrible intersection. The speeding MACK Trucks. I expected to see a crumpled mass of orange. We passed the cemetery, and I felt the tombstones looking at me–“We know,” they said. “We know what it feels like to leave that world.”

It took little time to get home, but when I pulled in the driveway, I did not want to get out of the car. If he’s not here, my life is over. If he’s not here, I am a terrible parent. If he’s not here, I will lose my shit and just run away and hide. I can’t do this job. I can’t.

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There is a scene in the movie House of Sand and Fog where Ben Kingsley‘s character charges up the steps of a building, knowing that his son is dead, but hoping beyond hope he’s not. As he races to find out, he repeats “I want only for my son. I want only for my son.” I saw that film before I had children, yet the scene haunted me for days. It haunts me still. I fear, like every parent fears, that one day I will lose my child. I think of those I know who have faced this unbearable pain, and I wonder if I could do so. I shudder to think.

I turn the door knob and am met by quiet. Owen is on my heels. “Hayden?” My heart pauses.

“Yeah?” he answers.

“Did you walk home?”

“Yeah,” he says, matter-of-factly.

There are tears. Many from Owen and not nearly enough from Hayden, as far as I’m concerned. I want to hug him, but I am afraid I will throttle him. I send him to his room and add on to his punishment from earlier. I yell at him, A LOT. And the one thing I keep repeating is “Why would you do that?” I did not give him room to answer.

I know why. Now, at least. He did it because he’s seven! He has little concept of danger and consequences and death. But that answer has been small consolation for me since.

Did you ever date someone you cared about–loved even–and then they do something so out of the ordinary and bizarre that you become completely freaked out by them and end the relationship soon after? I have. And that’s how I’ve felt these past few days: Freaked out. But you can’t break up with your child. This union is for better or worse, for richer or poorer…

Each day, though, I feel a little more normal. The amount of times I replay his walk home in my mind gets fewer. I have finally stopped hearing the screech of brakes and a thud in my mind. Last night, at dinner, when we were talking about how many more days he has “without screen” I finally got up the nerve to ask him where he crossed the street–it took me five days to get up the courage to ask that question.

But I am changed. This event changed me. And my sadness feels profound, because I think it marks the beginning of many more betrayals that are inherent in the parent/child relationship. This daring walk home marks the first of many possible betrayals: There will be other dangerous jaunts: on foot, bike, skateboard, and eventually, car. There will be parties where he’ll have to confront drinking and drugs. There will be lies about curfew and who he was with. There will be many times I’ll want him to go in one direction, and he’ll defy me and go another.

But for now, I am trying to appreciate the fact that my life did not turn upside down that day. I looked down the road to Hell, but thankfully turned off before I arrived there. I realize other obstacles await, and someday tragedy may strike. I hope I’ll be better prepared, but I doubt it. That’s the constant reminder a parent must face. There is very little in my control. Too damn little.

EPILOGUE

The day after Hayden’s long walk home, I had to take our puppy, Rosie, to the vet. She threw up all over my front seat when we were seconds from arriving home. I had had the new car exactly one week.

Old Yeller

2774519474_3dff3f1e56_zDon’t worry. This post is not further lamenting about my dog’s death, but the title just fits my predicament so well. You see, I am a yeller. I’m not just a loud person. I need to be the loudest in the room. I need to be heard. And if I feel you are not getting my point, I will simply yell it AT you. This is a horrible trait–probably my only flaw:)

This flaw is weighing on my mind because I recently had an incident with my sons that I am still ruminating about. Last week I yelled at them–a scream at the top of my lungs kinda holler. I’ve only done that a handful of times with them, but it’s the type of behavior where just once is one too many. And of course, what really irritates me about the whole incident is that I was trying to be nice.

It was Friday. They had been bugging me about swimming at the YMCA all week. When they got off the bus, I asked them if they wanted to go. They answered with a resounding “Yes!” “Then we’ll get pizza and watch a movie,” I said. What a plan! What a great dad! What an idiot for thinking it would be so easy! “Can we have snack first?” asks one. “Can we watch a little TV first?” asks the other. “Sure. We’ll leave in a half hour.”

Of course I try to accomplish a dozen things in that half hour, so an hour and a half later we’re finally getting into the car–just in time for mommy to be pulling in from work. Shoot, I never told Pam my plan, I think. “I want Mommy to come with us,” Hayden says.  This is not fair to Pam, who didn’t even know we were going. Understandably tired, she lets him down easy. But this will not suffice. Hayden goes full throttle into one of his tantrums. He starts yelling and flailing and I realize I should have gone an hour ago. The window of opportunity closed tightly while they were getting their Sponge Bob on. Pam dashes inside and I get both boys in the car, but Hayden is still crying and whining, “I WANT MOMMY TO COME!” Owen gets out of the car–“I don’t want to go now because Hayden’s ruining it.” This makes Hayden wail harder. I tell Hayden he can’t go if he doesn’t calm down. I tell Owen he has to go because we had a plan. Everyone is now miserable–including me and Pam– who is witnessing this dysfunctional tableau from the kitchen window. But–hear me now–up to this point I have not yelled once. I did not raise my voice at anyone involved. In fact, I hearken back to the childhood behavior gurus, Brazelton and Spock, and try to rationalize with my son like the good disciple I am: “Make a good decision, Hayd, I know you can do it. C’mon, Buddy, use your thinking side.” I recall the syllabus of books that I have read throughout my years as a parent: Touchpoints: Birth to Eight , What to Expect: The Toddler Years, 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline from 2-12,  and, finally, I’m Okay, You’re a Brat (this is a partial list).

With everyone safely buckled, I take a deep breath and begin to drive. I am quiet, hoping the storm has passed. I turn on the radio, wishing to hear one of the inappropriate songs that might distract them, the songs they now sing with bizarre naiveté (Can I blow your whistle baby, whistle baby, let me know…). Within two minutes, they begin to fight over a Fun Dip packet in the back seat–a gift from one of their friends from their Valentine’s party yesterday–cards alone don’t cut it anymore. Owen lent Hayden the dip stick to have a few licks (GROSS) but now he wants it back. Hayden is holding the sugary powder pack hostage.They begin to hit each other. I turn back for a second to see what the hell is happening, and as I look again to the road, I see a line of stopped cars with glaring  red tail lights. A slam on my brakes–stopping just feet from the car in front of me. This is the closest I’ve come to being in a car accident with the boys. Once I realize that we were lucky, that we are safe and no one is hurt, I want to kill someone. F***ing Fun Dip. F***ing swimming. F***ing pizza. F***ing movie.

What I say is, “DAMMIT!” Loud–remember this post is about my yelling. “DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU ALMOST MADE ME DO? WE COULD HAVE BEEN REALLY HURT! GIVE ME THE FUN DIP! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW HAYDEN? WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE THIS WAY? WHY CAN’T YOU BE HAPPY? WHY DO YOU HAVE TO RUIN THINGS?” Hayden sees my irrational state, and raises me twenty. He proceeds to kick the back of my seat. He yells at me, punctuating each word with a stomp of his foot. While still driving, I attempt to grab his leg, but then realize I need to reclaim my “Adult In Charge” badge. I turn the car around and head home. I am proud of myself for not continuing to go to the Y, but my screaming has not reached its end. “ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS…AND YOU GUYS DON’T REALIZE HOW GOOD….AND WE COULD BE AT THE HOSPITAL….I BET YOUR FRIENDS DON’T…AND YOU ARE SPENDING THE REST OF YOUR NIGHT IN YOUR ROOM, HAYDEN.” And with that we are home. The boys are in tears, and I slam my door and storm inside. “Well, that was a bust! We’re back…”and then I rehash the whole debacle for Pam, rants, threats, and all.

I march Hayden up to his room, he is still yelling, and I pretend to ignore him. As I begin to shut hisyell door, he looks at me, teary-eyed, and screams, “Why do you always yell at me?” To which I reply, “Why do you always yell at me?” I shut (not slam) his door hard, and I go to my room and lie down. Yes, it’s 5 o’clock on a Friday night and I’m spending Happy Hour in Hell!

“I’m going to order the pizza. Do you want any?” Pam calls up to me. “No!” I yell down, wallowing. I lay on our bed and just try to breathe, to relax, yet I can hear Hayden talking to himself in his room. I feel sad, not sure whether he is berating himself or me (probably both). I go to his door and open it.  “Can I come in?” “No,” he says, but bitter-sweetly. I go back to my room and lie down again. A few minutes later, I spy him hiding in my doorway, peeking his head in, hoping I’ll notice him. “Come on in,” I say. He climbs on the bed. “Hayden, Mommy and I love you very much, but we get sad when you behave like that. You say I always yell at you. When was the first time I yelled at you today?” In his signature inaudible whisper he says, “When we almost hit that car.” “And weren’t you yelling at me and mommy and Owen?” He gives me a pouty lip nod. “Let’s BOTH work on not yelling, okay.” He repeats pouty lip nod. We spend the next few minutes just lying there, savoring the quiet, which seems extra loud now that neither of us is screaming at each other. While I am glad to have this reconciliation, the thought that I often have is gnawing away at me: “Oh, God. He’s me. He’s me.”

“Pizza’s here!” Pam hollers. He and I both make our way downstairs. I proceed to gobble two slices of the pie I said I didn’t want. We salvage the night by watching Hotel Transylvania–again. My behavior weighs heavy on my mind. I am trying so hard to have patience, to show my boys how to be respectful and kind. But old habits die hard. I think back to my childhood where he who was loudest was the winner. Yelling was the most effective way to gain attention in my large family. To yell was to win. And what a price we paid for that victory.

The next day, Owen and I find ourselves sitting on the stairs tying our shoes. He then hops into my lap without warning. Just puts his arms around my neck and plants a kiss on my face. I am so moved by this. Each time we share such a moment, a voice in my mind cries out, “Remember this. Enjoy it. Such embraces will disappear soon. He will not be able to sit in your lap much more. He will not want to kiss you much longer.” I take this opportunity to address the incident from the day before. “Hey. I’m sorry I yelled like that yesterday. I was upset, and I was scared that we could have gotten hurt.” “You scare me when you yell like that,” he says softly. A small dagger pierces my heart. “I know I do. And I’ll try not to yell like that again.” He remains in my lap a bit more, and I will this moment into my mind so I can remember this promise that I make to him.

Having reflected on this situation for a week now, I am reminded of how my anger still seeps through into my life. I am not foolish enough to think I will not raise my voice ever again–I’m sure I’ve raised it every day since. But there is a difference between raising one’s voice and yelling. And I am aware that part of my anger is resentment. At times, I resent the fact that my kids don’t realize how good they have it–what a charmed life they are living, or how much attention and quality time we give to them. But then I think about these young men we are shaping, the habits we are forming in them through our example. I realize that one of the most important things I can do for them is show them how to remain calm and composed, even when angry. It has taken me decades, but one of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that yelling is one of the fastest ways to get people to shut down. Once you’ve yelled, you’ve lost.

Music, My Muse: Shake It Out

It’s New Year’s Eve 2012 and I am so excited to have no plans. I’m not even sure I’ll make it to midnight, and that’s fine by me. When I was young, this night was fraught with so much pressure, so much expectation. And it was usually a letdown.  The Christmas break is coming to an end, and I’ve had my share of over indulgences—food, drink, sleep… And now that our vacation, our “long winters’ nap”, is coming to a close, I feel I am entering the “winter of my discontent”.

This is a time to be reflective. To look back on the past year and evaluate the good, the bad, the expected. And whenever I reflect, I run the risk of becoming overwhelmed with regret and fear. There are always regrets. My most recent is having too much to drink at a holiday party on Friday night—another reason I’m glad to be home tonight, and soberly writing this piece. Then there is fear. Just looking back at the past few weeks, with tragedies both near and far, it’s a daily, conscious effort not to let fear rule our lives—if we did, we’d never get out of bed.

Overall, I had a wonderful holiday. I got to catch up with a lot of old friends. I received wonderful gifts from my family. I am lucky. And that makes me fearful, which in turn makes me regret that I am not being “present in the moment”. Yeah, you get it—it’s a vicious cycle.

About a month ago, I talked about the fact that music and song lyrics are such a source of nourishment for my soul. I said I was going to feature some of the songs that were inspirational to me as I set out to write this blog. Tonight, on this, the cusp of a brand new year, I feel it fitting to share with you my second installment of Music, My Muse:

Shake It Out, by Florence and the Machine 

Regrets collect like old friends
Here to relive your darkest moments
I can see no way, I can see no way
And all of the ghouls come out to play

Why is it that the regrets in our lives, the creatures that make up our darker moments, become like old friends to us? We spend so much time with them. We visit with them often. And in some cases, we never let them leave. It really is like living among ghosts. Their presence is always lurking, and they certainly know how to toy with us. They play around—at our expense! And as long as they are here, it truly is impossible to see a way out.

And I’ve been a fool and I’ve been blind
I can never leave the past behind
I can see no way, I can see no way
I’m always dragging that horse around

Now, if you’ve ever read my blog, then you know I am a Fool—with a capital F, and I’ve certainly been blind– by anger, by shame, by resentment. And I struggle with the past. Writing is my humble attempt to make peace with my past. I once heard the expression that “past is present.” I think as I get older, I understand that more. Unless we come to terms with our past, unless we put it in a healthy perspective, then it will always hold a claim on our present. We never truly move away from the past if we live in a world of regret and fear, of anger and shame. The horse image in the last line of this stanza did not click with me at first. But as I thought about it more, I found it rather fitting. A horse is difficult to tame. A horse needs constant attention and copious amounts of our time. The horse equals our past, and unless we tame it, it will never stop demanding or time and attention.

Shake it out, shake it out, shake it out, shake it out, ooh woaaah
Shake it out, shake it out, shake it out, shake it out, ooh woaaah

And it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back
So shake him off, oh woaaah

This is my favorite part of the song. We probably all have a devil on our back, or as I seem to operate, a different devil every few weeks. Just think about all the devil‘s floating around  this time of year–the time of New Year’s resolutions. The devil of weight, the devil of finding a lover, paying a mortgage, giving up a vice, ending a bad relationship, finding a job…Devils. All Devils. But, you know what my resolution is going to be this year? Shaking off the devil! Yeah, that’s right. Eff him! I want to spend more time living–I couldn’t bring myself to say dancing–and I can do that much better without a damn devil on my back.

And I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t
So here’s to drinks in the dark at the end of my rope
And I’m ready to suffer and I’m ready to hope
It’s a shot in the dark and right at my throat

For the past decade or so, I have tried to put my life in perspective. Becoming a husband and a father forced me to seek understanding within myself. Now that I am writing about my experience, I feel I am damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t. Whenever someone searches for meaning there will certainly be hardship–suffering. But there is also hope! Hope of coming out on the other side more complete. I am ready to hope.

And I am done with my graceless heart
So tonight I’m gonna cut it out and then restart
‘Cause I like to keep my issues drawn
It’s always darkest before the dawn

I feel the graceless heart is the heart that refuses to love, the heart that won’t allow one to experience pure love.  I’m working on that, for sure. I do images (3)believe  that we can’t love others unless we love ourselves. That may sound hokey to you, but there is no way around it. If you are having trouble with loving the people in your life, I would imagine you are not truly loving yourself.  And tonight, as I’ve done many times before, I am going to cut out the parts that are preventing me from feeling my best, from loving myself unconditionally.  And with the beginning of another year, I am going to then restart. My issues– and your issues– will always be present in our lives, but there is always light. There is always the hope of a new dawn, a new day, a new year. So, whatever devils you are dealing with, I wish you much luck and strength as you try to reconcile with them in 2013. You’re welcome to join me as I try to “shake it out”. Happy New Year!

Shake it out, shake it out, shake it out, shake it out, ooh whoa
Shake it out, shake it out, shake it out, shake it out, ooh whoa

PS: It’s 12:15. Goodnight!

Writing My Wrongs

Javier PachecoA few weekends ago, a friend of mine, a guy I’ve known for most of my life, was talking to me about my blog. He likes it. He thinks it’s been a good platform for me.  “I think you found your new therapist,” he said. I think he’s right. Writing is very therapeutic. It is a great outlet, a way for one to process  thoughts, ideas, fears and fantasies. Writing this blog has allowed me to do that.

I’ve been blogging now for three months. Recently, I’ve been sitting on a piece that was hard for me to write. And it got me thinking about why I do this…Should I do this?? And the answer I keep coming back to is “Yes!” This blog has been a wonderful experience for me. It has reinvigorated some old friendships; it has brought me many new perspectives; it has connected me with people across the globe and right in my own backyard. If you have been reading it, I want to thank you. Thank you for letting me in, for letting me rant and reveal, pontificate and pester. Thank you for visiting with me—if only for a few moments in your week.

A lot of people claim to like the format of my blog. How I write about an incident that happened with the boys just moments ago, and then throw in a piece from my past. To some, it may seem random, but this blend is purposeful. My past makes up my present. When I see my sons, when I look at the man I am in front of them, I am a father, but I am also a husband, brother, son, friend, student, teacher, neighbor. All of who I am is represented when I parent.  I am the sum of my parts, as you are, too. And I am constantly seeking a better understanding of that. Bringing in the past allows me to do that more, and, hopefully, better.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I have been brutally honest about my upbringing and my experiences in my family—both current and past. In talking to another friend, she cautioned me to not forget the good stuff in the past. That is an important reminder, and I thank her for that. I did not start this blog with an axe to grind or out of anger. I am saddened by some of the topics I cover, but they are what resonate with me.  I am not trying to play the blame game or point fingers, I am merely trying to write about my experiences. These are the memories and the relationships I have struggled with.

One of those relationships is with my mother. When I was young, I thought my mother was a living saint. Married so young (21) and 7 kids by thirty. With little means, she made the most of it. She gave us each a spark of her personality. She taught us how to have a big heart and she loved us all the best she could. I was hesitant to show her my blog because I thought it may offend her. However, I did not want to do this behind her back. Around my birthday, she stopped by to drop off a cake for me. We visited for a while, and then I asked her to sit and read the blog. I was so nervous  I went for a run while she perused each entry. When I got back, I was relieved (and surprised) that she loved it. I asked her how she felt about the entries where she may have looked bad. She exclaimed, “Well, it’s all true. How could I be mad?” What a great moment for mother and son. Permission to tell the truth. I recently came across a quote that speaks to this very theme: “The truth hurts for a little while, but a lie hurts forever.” This blog is my truth.

My father also did his best. He lived during a difficult time for men to be alive— they were taught not to show their emotions. My dad was a boy during The Great Depression; he never went to college, yet he was very smart; he never made it passed middle management in the insurance business. He was a staunch Catholic with a strong moral code. He had some bad breaks in his life, like a heart-attack at age 44, and he never truly found peace on this Earth. My father has been deceased for more than a decade and a half. There is some guilt in me for writing about him when he no longer has a voice. I feel bad that he is not here to speak with me about these words I write, but sadly, I think if he was here, and he read what I wrote, he would not speak to me. Perhaps it would be different. Perhaps.

These are my parents, and they are flawed—as we all are. And it is through their flaws that my identity was formed, and that of my six brothers and sisters. And I cannot stop what I have started. I believe in the power of writing and its ability to bring us to a greater understanding. If I ever come across as whiny or petulant, please call me out on it. And please understand that the writing you find on these pages has been developing in my mind for years, decades even. I do not write about the past without having given it much consideration and deliberation.

Finally, some thoughts from the teacher in me. When I talk to my high school students about writing, I inform them that the word essay means an attempt; to try. These essays I write are my attempts. Like all attempts, some will be more successful than others.  Which brings me to my second teacher point. When I discuss the art of argument with students, I explain to them the old adage “Everything’s an argument.”  I tell them that what we are trying to do when arguing is “enter the conversation.” My blog is my attempt to enter the conversation. I have something to say, and I am glad I am finding a way to say it. I have started a conversation and I would love it if you would join me.

What do you have to say? Tell me your thoughts. Let me know what topics you would like me to cover more. If you blog, what scares you about writing? Please let me know what you are thinking. It matters.

Anger 2.0

The awakening began when I met my wife, Pam. She is a beautiful person, with all of the traits that I needed in order to find peace.  Pam is patient, reserved, tactful, kind, understanding.  We are complete opposites, but we are complete. Pam and I found each other at the right time.  Meeting at thirty, we both knew more of what we wanted in a partner.  I had been quite successful at playing the role of “happy” with a “healthy” existence.  I was a teacher, I went to church more than not, I led a decent life, I tried to be on good terms with everyone in my family. When I married her, I was not prepared for the emotional turmoil it would dredge up for me.  I had successfully stuffed all of my anger tightly inside.  It took the serenity of marrying normal to bring it spewing forth.

I recall one night in early spring when I sat on the front porch of our new house. I had just finished a full day’s work of planting and mulching, and sat down to enjoy the peace and calm of a cool April night. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of pride–I was a man working the land, enjoying a well deserved beer after a hard day of work.  But there it was, that voice inside me, reminding me that all of this was a sham.  “Who are you kidding? This can’t be yours? Don’t forget where you came from. You’ll never escape that.”

In a funny way, it reminds me of the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”:

You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife …You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

Indeed, I asked myself, How did I get HERE? I truly felt I didn’t deserve to be in that house. Perhaps it was my Irish Catholic guilt, but I was burdened with the idea that I was living in a single home on a beautiful corner lot. A far cry from the twin I grew up in–the small house I shared with nine others, the bedroom where 5 boys slept, the one shower. Rather than feel I had achieved a goal of having more than I did as a kid, I felt guilty. Why me? What’s so special about me that I can have a better life now? And with the guilt came the pressure. How can I live a normal life? How can I have a happy home? I don’t know how to be happy. And, as I went through the motions, I knew that I had a lot to reconcile before I could ever feel deserving of this new life.

About six months into our marriage, I had a panic attack. I didn’t see it coming. Emotionally, I had stuffed so much shit inside my mind, that it was literally on overload. Naively, I thought marriage would be a chance for me to reinvent who I was. I had married a normal woman, and was therefore beginning my life in my normal family. It doesn’t work that way–I still had all the flaws and hang-ups as a married man that I did when I was single.

It was a dreary day in February. A Monday. We had just spent the weekend in Punxsutawney, PA to witness the groundhog seeing its shadow. It was on my bucket list since I saw the movie with Bill Murray. There I was, in a classroom, telling a story to my students about something funny from the weekend’s festivities. I love telling stories, and students always oblige me with their attention. But that day was different.  I felt their eyes staring through me, I could hear them blinking… Laughter was always my method.  And I had made people laugh for so long that it became my refuge, my way of deflecting, my way of poking fun at the world. Even the twisted stories of my youth are all ensconced in humor–and in many ways I find comfort in that, even still. But that day, the laughter turned on me. I found myself too conscientious to care about the laughs. I was exhausted–tired of pretending I could just move beyond all the pain of the past by simply ignoring it. If you’ve never had a panic attack, I can tell you it is exhausting–you feel like you’re running a marathon and having a heart attack at the same time.  It seems to block out all the noise except the muffled beating of your heart. All of the saliva from your mouth seems to drain into your palms. Amazingly, I held it together. I wanted to just run out of the room, but I managed to stay. The story came to an awkward end, and then I quickly assigned the reading of the day to be done silently. The kids were unaware of what had just happened, but I was forever changed.

When I got home, I was very quiet– emotionally and physically exhausted. It was as if three decades of pain climbed onto my back and refused to leave until I acknowledged they were there. At dinner, when I told Pam, I could see the fear in her eyes. I tried to assuage her concerns, but I was fearful myself. The following few weeks were a fog. I continued to teach, and waited for the next attack to come. Pam was so sweet, offering encouragement, leaving me cards, even investigating possible causes. I remember her telling me how she read that artificial sweetener can be a cause of anxiety, knowing I used many packs of Equal in my coffee each day. But I knew the toxin–it wasn’t saccharin– it was years of suppressed anger and pain.

After that initial attack, I do not remember having any other full-blown episodes. There were times when I would get nervous, and feel the symptoms starting, but I was able to keep them in check with breathing deeply (don’t knock it til you try it) and positive thinking (talking oneself off the ledge). Yet, from that initial anxiety attack, I slumped into a terrible depression. I was so removed from any daily connection. I felt exhausted all the time. I felt sad. I felt hollow. For so long, I tried to be optimistic. I tried to pretend the past wasn’t as bad as I remembered, that everyone has their “cross in life”. But now my body refused to let me pretend anymore. It was shutting down, saying, YOU BETTER WORK THIS OUT OR I WILL. Before this, I often wondered how one would know if he was depressed–I mean clinically depressed. Trust me, you’d know.

I can remember confiding in a few friends about my situation, but unless you have experienced something similar, you really can’t understand. In one conversation, with a very close friend, I tried to convey how sad I was.”Really? You seem the same. I don’t notice anything different about you.” How could I be completely different and seem the same to those around me? I guess it’s the power of the facade we put up for others. At home, Pam and I were tentative with each other. I didn’t want her to think I felt as bad as I did, and she didn’t want me to think she was as worried as she was. Yet, what fueled my anger, and my depression even more so, was the fear, the threat, that I was recreating a dynamic that I had grown up with– a distant father, a man who closed himself off from the world; a husband and wife who could never find equal footing; a home where unspoken angers and fears were as present as the people who occupied the rooms. It made me question everything.  Should I have kids? Could I ask Pam to stay in this marriage if I was no longer the person she thought she married?  How was I going to ever get beyond these feelings of emptiness and sadness?

I knew I it was time to see a therapist (finally). I made an appointment and waited for my life to begin again.

These paintings are the work of M. Drake. You can purchase his work at http://www.gallerydirect.com/art/artists/m-drake