Years ago, when our oldest, Abbi, was just a kid, I had to do one of the most intense and terrible punishments I have ever devised.
Abbi, you see, was terrible at picking up after herself and keeping her room or the living room clean. This was particularly difficult for Andrea and I considering the fact that this was just a tiny, 2-bedroom house in Omaha. The worst thing in the whole world: Barbie hairbrushes. Those things are like a tiny plastic bed of nails placed strategically so that when you walked through the hallway or the living room in the dark of night so you can step on them and embed the hot pink day-glo plastic into the arch of your foot. I cannot tell you the number of muffled screams escaping my throat during the years we lived in our little 2-bedroom near the Country Club area of town.
The particular punishment centered around those very dolls. We were moving from Omaha, NE to Dallas, Texas where I had already begun work as a producer and photographer for the CBS network owned television station there. We were packing up the bright yellow Ryder truck parked on 50th street, awaiting the house full of items. Abbi had left all the said Barbies lying on the floor. She had been told on more than one occasion that she had to pick them up . . . long before we were to move. Now we were being held up by the fact that she wouldn’t pick up the dolls.
I had already threatened throwing them out, putting them away, grounding her, and last resort that we’d give the dolls away. She didn’t believe that was an option. She was wrong.
The day we were moving, I’d had it. She’d been told more than once that she had to pick them up and put them in a bag so that they could be packed in the truck for the move to Tejas. She didn’t do it, fueling my anger through the day. By the time we had to start mopping up the move I looked at Abbi and told her to tell me which Barbie was her favorite. She grabbed one and I told her to get in my truck. We drove from our house a couple miles down the road to the Salvation Army Hospital, a place that housed kids who for whatever reason did not have insurance and were getting help for long-term diseases. Abbi cried, horribly, the entire way to the place. I nearly caved in twice. It wasn’t even a long drive to the hospital but it was the longest trip I’d ever taken.
I made Abbi walk up to the receptionist in the hospital lobby, handing the doll to her.
“My Daddy says I am not able to take care of my toys so I’m giving this to you so you can give it to a little girl who doesn’t have a doll. Hopefully she can take better care of it than I can.”
She stopped crying on the way home. As difficult a punishment as this was to dish out, it was brilliant in its simplicity. She’d been through a Jesuit preschool and a Catholic kindergarten. They had learned about charity and giving. How do you get angry with your dad’s punishment if you know damn well that a little kid who has never had a doll will love getting this – your favorite. Abbi hated the punishment, but she never forgot it. From that point on, every time I said I was going to punish any of the other kids Abbi immediately told them to listen to me because I would make good on my promise. It was the gift that kept on giving.
Tonight, though, I hate myself for the punishment I had to dish out.
Noah, one of the twins, has been having problems at the school’s Extended Day Program, EDP. He, for God knows what reason, has an issue with another set of twins – kindergarten students. They both followed him around the room quite often, my theory because they both wanted to be with an older kid and because Noah was somebody who reacted when bothered. Noah is reactionary, but he’s never good at holding back his temper. He shouldn’t have picked on little kids.
Worse yet, he made the claim that he wouldn’t get in trouble. His mom died. People felt sorry for him. He was playing everyone, and it really bothered me. Worse yet, I’d had a talk with him the night before about having to be better at the EDP room. It isn’t semantics. He HAS to be good there, I don’t have another choice. I even told him that if we lost EDP, with no other options, it would have a ripple effect (not those particular words, give me some credit for being able to talk at an 8-year-old’s level) on all of us. What happens if I have to ask to leave at 2:30pm each day? Will I be able to keep my job? All these things were truly racing through my head.
Then he acts even worse. He gets in a fight with one of these kids today, pinning him to the ground after yelling at him.
I did what a lot of parents would do. Noah wrote a letter to each of the twins that he’d mistreated. Then I told him he had to write a letter to both the EDP teachers and the kindergartners’ dad. It was in the middle of the last letter – to the teachers – that I got the burst of inspiration. It was horrible, and I had no idea that it would break me in two.
He finished the last letter, finishing it up, drawing a little picture of a jack-0-lantern and a ghost on the bottom, I guess because he thought it would be nice for the teachers, and wrote their names on the envelope. He was about to get up and leave and I stopped him.
Write a letter to your Mommy.
The look on his face wasn’t angry or sad. It was scared. His eyes went red and the tears started to fall down his little cheeks. You have no idea just how hard it was for me, watching him write to his mother and apologize for using her death as a way to get out of trouble. The bottom of the letter, the blue line of the notebook paper smearing under the salty drops, one by one, hitting the bottom of the page. I looked away not wanting him to see me as torn up as he was.
“I’m sorry, Mommy. I said I would be good at school because you had died, but I lied.”
I hadn’t asked him to write that. He did it on his own. All I said was to write what he would have told Andrea if she was sitting there. I know what was going through his mind. The one thing Andrea wouldn’t abide, not ever, was lying. Not from the kids. Not from me. You could get away with bloody murder, but lie to her and you would have a hard time getting back into her graces. Her anger over lies is equaled only by my ability to hold a grudge.
Then he wrote more, and I lost it.
“I miss you Mommy.”
The bottom of the page had been hit by so many tears it was sticking to the table by now.
You have to understand, I know what he went through, I was going through it there with him. When he couldn’t think, I told him just to think about Mommy, sitting there, right in her normal spot at the table and looking at us.
“What would she say to you, Noah?”
He shook his head not knowing.
“Would she say I love you, little moo? You have to do better, you know that right?”
He nodded his agreement.
Then he added that he loved her so much.
I put my hand on his shoulder, standing behind him, telling him he didn’t have to write any more if he didn’t want to. He didn’t. I had him put the letter in an envelope and put “Mommy”, which he misspelled (in the letter too) Momy.
Then I did something that just ripped what little semblance of control away from my emotions and was the last piece that pushed him over the edge, too. I told him that we’d get up early tomorrow, go to the cemetery, and give Mommy his letter.
After he’d calmed down, I told him to go upstairs and change into pajamas and I’d come up and read. Then I went to a part of the house where the kids wouldn’t see me and just broke down.
I had to do it. I know that. I knew life wouldn’t be perfect, not any better than when Andrea was here, it couldn’t be. I guess I had hoped it just wouldn’t be this hard. It hasn’t. Not for a long time. I don’t know why this affected me so deeply, maybe because we both could just see her there but couldn’t talk to her, touch her, even just say we’re sorry . . . for everything that has been pulling at us since she left. It’s horrible to have a one-way conversation and only guess from old memories that are slowly slipping away what her reaction will be.
Don’t take this the wrong way. Punishing the kids when they are clearly wrong isn’t the issue here. The issue is that they have to face this. I write every day because after the chaos of the day diminishes – after the kids go to bed – I have nobody to face the stresses of the day with. Hell, I’m not sure I’ll ever want to have that again, but regardless I feel like I need to tell somebody above the age of 16 what is going on. More important, though, I realize the kids have to face this without their Mom. You’re supposed to make life for your kids better. Right now, I can only see myself propping them up so they don’t fall, no more, no less. It may get better, but it’s so unfair, so painful to watch them face that “Momy” is gone and they have to face knowing they don’t have her to enjoy their little moments of life with. I wrote a lyric for a new song not long ago – it just wasn’t supposed to be this way. It’s even more evident in this episode.
I had such high hopes for the day. Never realized that instead I’d see the stars fall from the sky. Tonight I feel broken in two.