Last night I had written that we’d already started writing our new story, the first lines already on the page without knowing it. That doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing or that I’m ready to embrace that. My life is still a constant battle and the worst part is I never know where the front is.
The biggest thing is worrying about screwing up. I get the messages and the phone calls and the notes, all saying how great a job I’m doing, telling me that the kids are doing great, telling me how we can get through it all and it’s OK.
But it’s not.
This will sound overly dramatic, but every day we’re walking on the edge of a knife. I know it’s an old analogy, and it’s harsh, but it’s still apt. Slip but a little and we get cut, and we’ve got a lot of nicks, we’re bleeding a lot. The kids themselves walk the sharpened edge, but they don’t necessarily realize it. The hardest and worst part is that they walk behind a singular person that is supposed to guide them safely to the hilt: me. I live in a constant worry that we won’t just slip, we’ll fall, and then what happens?
It’s not just the theory that I didn’t get them clothes that fit or nutritious dinners or a decent Christmas. It’s that I’m like that guy in the sideshow with a bunch of little sticks with plates spinning on them. Let one slow down too much and it falls.
I know I’m being so over-the-top in my metaphors, but I think a lot about how easy it is for me to get this wrong. I don’t start with the last 8-9 months, let’s go back a year. I’ve lost my Aunt, my Grandfather, my wife, my house, was pushed out of a job and lost half our household income and am now the sole breadwinner. We didn’t have life insurance. My daughter who had been going to an all-girls private high school had to make the switch her junior year to public school. Each one of those items has been a gash that has hit us, the cuts dripping as we walk.
Every decision I make is predicated on those four kids. I posted this picture yesterday of the 5 of us. It’s a picture from the day of the funeral. The kids look brilliant, particularly for where they were about to go in just a few short minutes after that picture. By that day, I’d gained 70 pounds from my normal, healthy weight. I couldn’t walk up the hill to our house without being out of breath. I had a massive moment of panic that sparked me to stop what I was doing.
To give you some context, the worst thing in the world I have ever had to do was to go home on the 26th of March and look into those four little faces, the kids who look to me for guidance and stability, and break their hearts. The night before, Andrea had reacted to us, had looked at me not through me, if that makes sense. I had this sense of optimism and every little movement and reaction to stimulus was a momentous celebration for me. I had allowed myself to get a little hopeful. It bled over to the kids. So imagine my horror after letting it sink in that Andrea had died when I realized I had to go home and tell them that she isn’t coming home. That they would never see her again, and even though I said it would get better, even though I was acting like it was all turning around, she’s gone. My nightmare was one of them hitting me, yelling at me, accusing me of lying or brushing them off. I hadn’t, but I would have thought that way. I would have asked if I’d known this was coming all along. Instead, Hannah, the sweetest, most adorable, even-keeled child I know, begged me to go back to the hospital because there was no way they had gotten it right.
“They sometimes get it wrong, Dad. Please go back, Daddy. You have to go back, they have to be wrong.”
I can never, ever, hear that kind of panic and disappointment again. You can talk about the “rapture” and 2012 and the end of the world, but you don’t have a clue. I’ve seen the end of the world. I’ve seen it in their faces, and it’s worse than you can possibly imagine.
I made a decision that I have to walk that edge with them. I will fall, I will take the cuts and the scratches. I started eating better, trying to get healthier, trying to be more of what they need. I saw what losing Andrea did to them, I cannot stand to think what would happen if they lost me. So no more trips overseas. No coverage of Israel and Pakistan. No embedding with the Air Mobility Wing. I can find plenty of stories to cover very close to home. These kids lost their Mom. If I don’t stick around for more than a few more years, even if it’s in the way I eat, drink or act, I have failed them and they don’t just fall and get nicked, they fall and split open. They fail because of my failure.
So when people ask why I wake up every morning and make breakfast; why I make homemade treats for their lunches; why I don’t allow pop in their lunches or caffeine in Hannah, Noah or Sam’s drinks; why I tell Abbi to leave the kids in extended day so she isn’t babysitting them more than an hour or two each day, it’s not because I’m being stubborn. I’m being realistic. These are the things, the routines that they need, deserve, and have to have if I want them to survive. Abbi’s natural tendency was to try and act like she had to be their Mom. I won’t let that happen. She’s 16, she needs to be 16. I injured my back some time ago and the doctor told me that I should avoid bending, picking up the kids, chasing them around, football, baseball . . . everything that makes them kids. My answer was a resounding “no”.
They need those times, those memories. If I can move around and throw the football around; if I can chase them up the stairs and tickle them; if I can pick them up and carry them to bed because they have a fever and are weak, I’m going to do it. The worst thing in the world for them was finding out that their parents aren’t immortal. The will always wonder, their Mom leaving them so early, if it’s going to happen again. Sam is always making sure where I am. Abbi checks on me when I get a cough or a headache. If I can behave like I’m the same, normal guy they always had around, they can feel like life continues and we can start writing on the page together.
The only way I knew how to do that was by example. My Mom made breakfast every morning. She did the wash. She cleaned our cuts. My parents played with us, took us on vacation, and made us feel safe. They only have one parent, but if I have to get 4 hours sleep but make a week’s worth of pancakes and waffles in individual ziplocks so we have homemade breakfast; if we drive to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon instead of sitting and watching TV; if we roast marshmallows in an outside fire pit, that’s what I’ll do.
We’ve already been cut, falling on the knife on March 26th when Andrea left us. I worry so much about what happens to those kids, that I’ll fail, that they won’t have the memories they need from their childhood, the basis for the men and women they will become. I want to continue the illusion that their Dad is immortal because now that’s what they need. I’m not Spartacus, Hercules, The Gipper or even Patton. But I will fight and fall on that knife’s edge so they don’t.
I can’t imagine most parents don’t think this way. Do you? What do you do to make sure your kids don’t look back at their lives and wonder why or how they got there? Don’t we all worry about how our actions ripple outward to hit our children?
My kids already got wounded once, and it was near mortal. Now I’ll take the hits, the nicks, and get back up, bleeding though I am. I know I can take it, I already did.
The first cut was the deepest.
The First Cut Is the Deepest by Sheryl Crow