relationships

Gary On My Wayward Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gn.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

And in return, I got this:

gn.3

 

 

 

 

 

 

To which I said in an annoyed tone:

gn.4

 

 

 

 

 

 

To which Hayden responded:

gn.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

“SORT OF!?” I shouted, echoing him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cartoons by the talented artist Aidan Murphy.

You are a Crusader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two minutes into visit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twenty minutes in:

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

Me: No.

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

Me: That’s terrible, Mom.

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

Thirty minutes in:

Mom: (excitedly) Michael, guess who died?

Me: Who?

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

Me: Oh, boy. That’s a long life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boundaries, Michael. BOUNDARIES.

Caution: Lifeguard on Duty Will Break Your Heart.

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

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

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

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

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

“No way! I can swim.”

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

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

“Okay, sign me up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi, Michael!”

“Hi,” I say, sheepishly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father’s Day: What did I know?

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early 
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, 
then with cracked hands that ached 
from labor in the weekday weather made 
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 

When the rooms were warm, he'd call, 
and slowly I would rise and dress, 
fearing the chronic angers of that house, 
Speaking indifferently to him, 
who had driven out the cold 
and polished my good shoes as well. 
What did I know, what did I know 
of love's austere and lonely offices?

My eyes widen as I read each word. This poem–I feel like I wrote it. How could someone else capture my thoughts so perfectly? I feel raw. Exposed. I am sitting in a college classroom on a damp, dreary Fall afternoon, and this poem makes me feel warm, yet I have chills. This is how I feel about my father. This is what I have been trying to articulate in my mind for eighteen years. I think of all the gestures he did to show his love–silently, at times begrudgingly, but he did show his love in the mundane tasks of keeping house. And no one ever thanked him. We may have said the words as we dashed out of the car or grabbed whatever was in his hand, but there was never an exchange of thanks that involved eye contact and a firm hand shake or lingering hug. Affection was quick, obligatory.

And I DID fear the chronic angers of that house. There was always so much anger. It began with my parents and enveloped each person that existed in that small home–nine of us–ten if you include Anger, which certainly felt like another sibling living among us.

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

I will never forget the day I first came upon this poem. Freshman year at The University of Scranton. A survey literature course. Robert Hayden–my literary brother. It was this poem–Hayden’s words–that provided me with one of mybooks_clip_art_by_zenoracle-d4qi2lb first experiences of what language could convey. I was in awe that a few lines of verse could so profoundly summarize my relationship with my father. I credit this poem for being one of the reasons I became an English teacher. The written word can speak to a reader in many personal, powerful ways. The experience can be incredibly private and eye-opening, yet the reader need not reveal to the world that “this is me! These words are my own! I’ve had the same experience.”

I have gone on to teach that poem in my classroom, and whenever I do, I am reminded that somewhere in the room, there probably is a young man or woman (or ten) who sees themselves in these lines–who hears their own fears being echoed in the voice of the poet: “What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” That line has become sort of a mantra of mine as I have aged, as I have reflected on my childhood and my upbringing. What did I know? I knew my dad loved me, yes. He was a good man. He wanted to be a better man than he was, and he did love me. And yet, he was very lonely. Surrounded by his wife and seven children, but alone. And austere. His firm and unbending sense of discipline made him very austere.

My dad died eighteen years ago, when I was in my early twenties. I wish he got to know me better. I wish he was able to meet my lovely wife, and see his beautiful grandsons play. I wish he got to see me as a father. I think he would be different now. I know I am. I am not afraid. I no longer live in fear of the chronic angers that filled my childhood. But in my mind, I recall the blue-black cold of the rooms that hold the memories of my youth.

Flash forward twenty some years. The college freshman reading poetry is now a father himself. He wants to be a good father, but he fights the anger that has lived in him for so long. Indeed, it has subsided, but it still lurks. He loves his sons more than anything. He cannot help it. He knows this is the circle of life. A boy cannot understand his father until he is a father himself…I see now Dad, I do. I see how hard it must have been for you. I see that you were living in a much different time, a time when men were only worth the pay check they brought home–and yours never seemed to be enough. A time when feelings and emotions were never discussed, let alone understood. I see the man who was incredibly bright, but never had the chance to go to college. I know you loved us, but the pressures and chaos of that household were too much to bear. And as part of your legacy, I have inherited some of your struggles–as a husband, a father, a man.

I grapple with this often, almost daily. I know the kind of dad I want to be, the kind I set out to be every day, but then I see my frustration creep in, my impatience, my arrogance. Lately, I’ve been reminded of this innate struggletrainer_fall2012-38 between father and son when dealing with my second born, Hayden (I do not think we arrived at his name accidentally.) Hayden and I fight–a lot. I know it is because we are so similar in personality. My friend Liz, over at The Kovies, told me that “God doesn’t give you the child you want; he gives you the child you need.” I now know that I needed Hayden. I needed him to see myself as a boy–difficult. Caring, loving, and sensitive, yes–but also difficult. I bear witness to my frustration with him. I am trying so hard to be present in his life, to show him my unconditional love. But he challenges my patience, and seems to bring out the worst in me sometimes. And yet, we love each other very much. I snuggle with him in his bed, and he takes walks with me and the dog. He knows I love him, and I am able to show it in ways that my father did not–could not.

In the past month, when I’ve tucked Hayden in at night, I’ve become frustrated by our exchanges. I’d say, “Good night, Hayden. I love you.” And Hayden would say nothing–NOTHING! At first, I tried to ignore it, or I would add a passive aggressive “I love you, too, Dad” before leaving his room. Still, no reply. One night, after no response, I implored,”Hayden, I said I love you.” “I heard you.” “You’re supposed to say ‘I Love you, too, Dad.'” “Sort of,” he says, head buried in his pillow. “Sort of?” I yell. “It means a little,” he explains–to his father, an English teacher. I walk out, incredulous. On another night, I try again. Still, no reply. “Hayden, I know you love me.” He shakes his head “No.” “Yes, you do!” Again, he shakes “No.” “Do you love Owen?” He shakes his head “No.” I feel comforted by this. “Do you love Mommy?” A big head nod “Yes.” So big of a nod, his chin almost hits the floor. I refuse to surrender. “Well, I love you Hayden, no matter what.”

trainer_fall2012_web-38In the past few weeks, we’ve made progress. Now, when I say it, he says “Okay.” That’s all. “Okay.” I leave his room frustrated, but I’m trying to be okay with “Okay.” Still, my mind reels: All I do to show this boy how much I love him every day. Not just the basics. I coach his baseball team (even though I suck). I volunteer in his classroom. I remember to buy his favorite cookies…How can he not know how much he loves me???? Then, it dawns on me. Not right away–it’s a gradual epiphany: Oh, I see. “What did I know of loves austere and lonely offices?” The role of a dad can be cold and austere regardless of the amount of affection we show our kids. It feels cold, because we are often the bad guy–the punisher, the disciplinarian. And lonely. So lonely. We love our children so much, yet watch them push us further and further away toward their eventual independence. What did I know? Not much, until I had children of my own.

Once again, I am comforted by the words of Robert Hayden. Decades later, his poem still beckons and consoles me. I am glad I realized this in time to celebrate Father’s Day. It is a day filled with mixed emotions. How does one celebrate a role that is so layered and confusing? How do I reconcile the past and the present? Well, this year, in honor of Hayden’s refusal to return my “I love you,” I thought of another poem–a song–that reminds me of my father. It is probably the most tender memory I have of my dad. When I was very young, about four, I recall sitting in the front seat with my dad, alone! No seat belt to tether me. Just me sitting next to my dad.  Six brothers and sisters and I had Dad all to myself in his big, thick-cushioned, blue Chevy Nova. I remember driving with the windows down, the breeze mixing with the smoke of his cigarette, and he began to sing me a song:

You’ll never know just how much I miss you
You’ll never know just how much I care

And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you
You oughta know for haven’t I told you so
A million a more times, you went away
And my heart went with you

I speak your name in my every prayer
If there is some other way to prove that I love you
I swear I don’t know how
You’ll never know if you don’t know now …

On the rare occasion when I was alone with my dad, I would ask him to sing me that song. It only happened a handful of times, before I got too old to feel comfortable requesting it. Well, Dad, I didn’t know then. But I think I do now. And I wish the same for my son. Someday, Hayden. Someday, you’ll know. And I hope I’m around to bear witness.

trainer_fall2012_web-38You’ll Never Know:  music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Mack Gordon

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.

Morning Glories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry and Parents–for anyone who is one or ever had one!

The following excerpt is from the  poem Children Chapter IV by Khalil Gibran. My friend, Kirk, shared this with me after a recent post. Thanks, Kirk.  I liked it so much, I had it tattooed to my back– just kidding. But I do love it and want to commit it to memory. It truly captures so much about the ironic nature of parenting.  Enjoy!

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet, they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

“For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow…”