I’ve turned into my parents. I know this is the cheesy, horribly cliche’d line in every 1980’s sitcom, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. The worst part, though, is the fact that I have turned into BOTH my parents. Nobody warned me about this when I became a single dad.
I should explain. My Dad, as he’s gotten older, has been delightfully curmudgeonly with each passing year. He’s telling it like it is and I truly wish I had the ability and the calm nerve it takes to do the same. The thing is, it took decades of really hard work as a pharmacist, listening to grumpy, irritating old guys and ladies who claimed WalMart was cheaper then dumped out their pill bottles to make sure dad didn’t short them a single dose, to transform his business-like calm demeanor. And he’s insanely funny when he does it. It’s only taken me 6 months to get there, and I’m not nearly as funny.
Then there’s my Mom. I found myself yesterday, as the rain the meteorologists said wouldn’t come to Sacramento was pouring down and soaking me on the way to and from work, repeating a phrase my mother said constantly. “I know it’s going to storm, you guys are acting like a group of maniacs!”
I only bring it up because I’ve noticed a continuation of my own behavior that I hated in the months prior to losing Andrea. For all the amazing, wonderful things my wife brought to me, dealing with rowdy and obnoxious moments with our children wasn’t one of them. Andrea inherited her mother’s knack for wanting the problems and the noise to just “go away”. Hearing a child cry; that whiny, piercing, eardrum banging cry, was something she wouldn’t listen to. There were so many days I either got a phone call asking me to yell at Noah, or tell Sam to stop . . . or I simply walked in the door and had to dole out punishment like Solomon sitting on the throne waiting to split a baby in twain.
I hated that. I made that known, it led to arguments, and I couldn’t change it. Andrea would reach a point where the stimulation would be too much to bear and she’d just give in. It’s why we owned (notice the past-tense, we sold them on eBay) EVERY, and I do mean EVERY Thomas the Tank Engine. We had EVERY Dora the Explorer and Diego video. They would go to the store and the kids would get DVD’s, candy, whatever. Yet when we were strapped enough we didn’t have the cash for all that and groceries we went without milk. So I had to come home and, while the kids ran around with their new toys, watching new Sponge Bob DVD’s, I had to be the bad guy, yelling at them, angry that we had to find ways to stretch the hamburger in the fridge. I was – and am – in a constant state of grumpiness. She got to buy them toys, tell them “yes” all the time and I had to come home, first thing through the door after they look happy and shout “Daddy!” and start doling out punishments, taking away the new toys and yelling. It was uncomfortable, mean, and I felt like I was the bad guy all the time.
The problem is, I’m still there. It hurts to know that I still have to dole that out. The rain was on its way and the four of them – yes, ALL 4, (try dealing with a depressed, acne-ridden 16-year-old girl and then come judge me) were f$#*ing nuts! Worse yet? My Mom was right. The storm comes, maybe it’s the barometric pressure, maybe it’s cabin fever, but even after the weather people inevitably guessed the storm’s path incorrectly, I knew it was going to rain. A storm’s a-comin’, it’s just a matter of time. I know it, because I wanted to kill all four of my children. They were climbing the walls and I hadn’t given them any sugar or caffeine!
I’ve gotten some criticisms for this. I know I’m not a typical single-father. I gladly cook. I get up every morning and make breakfast for the kids. I figured out how to do the laundry without ruining things. (Well, most of the time. I pay for it so I don’t much care the results) But where the typical response to our situation, the atypical gut and knee-jerk reaction would be to do the opposite of what I’m doing I continue the routine we’ve started. It’s like sometimes people think “they lost their mom, you should do whatever you can to help them!” I’m sorry, buying a freaking toy isn’t helping them.
Here’s where I turn into my Dad, twenty years earlier than he did. Spoiling them made things worse already. When the kids get in trouble at school, I don’t think the best thing is to always assume the teacher’s wrong or that they should get a break just because their Mom died. It’s a mitigating factor, but it’s not a get out of jail free card.
The best thing I can do, I think, is to help them adjust. Help them carry on. We have a routine and following it has helped all of us to move forward. I don’t always like it, I’m always tired, I don’t get to sit down until after 10 each night, but it’s there, and there’s comfort in that. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m trying, and I don’t think siding with the kids on everything is the best approach. I try to be fair, listen to what happened, and filter out the exaggerations from the reality. They’re still kids, after all.
Look…I’m not saying I don’t have a heart. Sure, a big chunk of it is gone now. I was horribly insensitive in how I reacted to Andrea being pregnant with the boys. I’m not sure she ever forgave me for not being “excited” about the pregnancy. I wasn’t mean, never considered abortion or giving them up. They were our kids, I accepted that, but we already had two, now we were to be four?! I couldn’t wrap my head around that. Hannah was hard, a handful, and attached to Andrea at the hip, almost. Now I doubled our children in one swoop. We didn’t have the money, she was only working part-time, and now we had SO much more to contend with. I wasn’t angry, I was panicked, but she never saw it that way and I see her disappointment in me even today.
It’s part of what made things so hard to come home the day she died. Panic is a good way to describe it. Andrea was always there. When we had a problem, she helped me work it out. While I hated being the grumpy guy, I could TELL her that and ask her to help me so I wasn’t always that horrible person that just punished the kids. I won’t go into the details of what went on in the hospital in this post, but suffice it to say I was a mess. A complete and utter mess.
But as bad as that morning was, as terrible as I felt, the worst hadn’t happened yet. For the critics of how I don’t coddle my kids, you should know how much of my heart shattered that day walking in the door. You see, Andrea had started to improve, gaining a little bit of consciousness, even looking at and responding to me just a few hours before. She was supposed to get better, not leave us! The absolute worst thing was telling those four kids. They all acted differently – Abbi, in a reaction I saw coming and headed off, wanted to start taking over, act like Mom. I refused to let her feel like she had to take over for Andrea. She’s 16. She needs to be 16. I’m Dad, I can do this. I’ll need help, but I can do it, and I make sure she knows it. There is no reason for her to grow up faster than she should just because she thinks she has to take over for Mom. Noah, he was hurt, but got philosophical, nearly propping all of us up with his platitudes about how her heart was so big she had to spread it around, and pieces of it were with all of us, so she’s always there. Sam turned inward. I worried, because he just went upstairs, sat in the play room, and did . . . nothing. Now, he worries about all of us, making sure we stay in a group at the store and yelling if anybody wanders off. It’s annoying, but I don’t stop him. He’s working it out.
Hannah was the hardest. She and Andrea were SO close. The most heartbreaking thing was telling the kids and seeing the panic in her eyes. The near-hyperventilation in her breath as she cried and begged me to go back to the hospital. “They got it wrong, Dad, she was getting better. They couldn’t have checked, you have to go back Dad. Please…go back . . . sometimes they’re wrong, they have to be wrong!” How do you tell your daughter that the mother she adored isn’t there anymore. Worse yet, how do you look her in the eye knowing you had to be the one to tell the doctors to stop trying to keep her mother alive, keep her here? It’s a horrible burden to know you have crushed your child’s life, and I did it. I didn’t have a choice, but that doesn’t make it better. I did it just the same.
From there I made a solemn vow: we are better together. No matter what happens, even if we have to move, we are ALL going to move. We are stronger together, and no matter how hard the situation has been, I love and adore those children. I survive and continue to get up every morning, put my pants on and walk one foot in front of the other because those four kids look at me to be the example of what they should do. I spend my day, hopefully, leading by example. At night, they don’t see me stare at the empty bed and talk to her out loud, asking for help and not getting it.
What people don’t understand is my job isn’t to be their friend, not all the time. It is my job to be their Dad, 24/7. Coddling them isn’t helping. But preparing them is. I didn’t go out and immediately buy a ’68 Les Paul Deluxe. (OK, I got a Fender Espirit, but it was reeeaaaalllly cheap!) They didn’t get brand new Nintendo 3DS’s. (But I buy them books and take them to the occasional movie!) I’ll never replace their Mom, it just cannot be done. But I can do the best I can to prepare them. That’s what raising them SHOULD be. They may want the DVD’s and toys, but if that’s all they got and I turned away and sulked all day, they’d be worse off than when I started.
The storm is an apt analogy to our lives. As Stevie Ray said: “I guess we just couldn’t stand the weather!” It all got torn up, sucked away with her when she left. We are moving ahead, barely a step at a time, fighting the wind that is against us, but we’re moving. And that’s the biggest thing, forward trajectory.
A storm’s a comin’ . . . and we’re heading right into it. No place we’d rather be.