I’m going to do something that may shock, bother, or possibly even anger a few people.
I’m going to say this Halloween was better than most of the ones in the last few years with my wife.
I know, I know, that sounds horrible, awful, mean-spirited and sadly pathetic. Doesn’t change the fact that it’s really true.
To explain this, you have to understand what the last few years were like in our house. My wife had gotten ill. Not deathly ill, but . . . sick. The illnesses came with weight gain which caused other problems which caused more issues. The depression, the pain in her knees, the weight . . . all of those things had an effect not just on her but on all of us. It was a daily struggle. Andrea had to take an insane amount of pain medication just to be able to walk – the soft cushioning in her knees had been torn and the bones were literally rubbing against each other. That, in turn, made her very lethargic. That made her move less, which exacerbated the weight gain.
So what is Halloween? It’s walking around and handing out candy and being mobile. That’s not something my wife was in the last 2-3 years of her life. Add to that the fact her job – a pharmacist – had her on her feet all day, no break, every day, and she was in a miserable amount of pain. That pain, mixed with the narcotics, drove her deeper into despair. It made her sad. It made her dark. The light – that shiny, sparkly, twinkle that was there showing so much life – had dimmed in her eyes.
So why would I tell you all these horrible things? Well . . . first, you should realize that the light was coming back. The depression was being managed, both by her attitude and through medication. We’d gotten on a weight-loss plan because the liver and other medical problems were being handled. She’d started swimming, which had far less impact on her body. No, it wasn’t perfect, but the embers were glowing in her pupils again.
But holidays – things like Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas – those were hard. She refused photos. She couldn’t stand long enough to help cook and decorate. She still had amazing ideas but even implementing them fell on my shoulders most the time and I was already doing the basic daily chores.
That’s not to say she was helpless, she still picked up the kids while on disability. She went to the school, did health checks, all of that. But her activity level was just so low… Months before she passed she had become isolated. She was embarrassed, almost reclusive. I covertly got a friend to come visit and her spirits rose.
But the kids, though they don’t realize it, were missing a lot. I didn’t see that until last night.
Hannah had three friends over. They made their own costumes. They got everything together. I raced home late and got pizzas for all of us, the home decorated, pumpkins carved and lit . . . it’s been a hard week for me and the kids. Much as we treat the 30th – Andrea’s birthday – like it’s not as affecting, we know it is. But you know what, that’s okay. It’s okay to be close to friends, or grow close to someone and still be attached to this amazing woman. She was there for half of my life . . . that’s a big chunk of time, emotion and experience rolled together.
We don’t live without her . . . we live with living without her. That’s the big thing.
So tonight . . . we had the home all dressed up. Abbi had on a pink tu-tu with a sweatshirt (she thought I hadn’t noticed) and answered the door handing out candy. One of the kids’ dads and I went out with this massive group – six kids – and walked probably a mile or more getting candy. We had cheap pizza. We drank root-beer. One of the dads talked about how hard it is to find like-minded people: people who know the same movies, music, Monty Python and Spinal Tap and can quote the Dead Parrot sketch from scratch.
We talked until late and then took the visitors home. It was after 10 when the little ones finally went to bed . . . and I sat to write. It was then I realized . . . the kids had a great Halloween. Not a good one – which the last few years had been: walking our small neighborhood, getting some candy and then sitting alone in the house. My kids all shared an experience with friends. Abbi talked college and growing up with myself and other adults.
It’s a hard thing to come to terms with the fact that some things might be better after losing your spouse. But when you have only a single picture from the morning . . . because you were running crazy all day, it’s a good kind of tired. The kids went to bed . . . exhausted . . . smiling.
The lights, you see, may have left Andrea’s eyes . . . but I saw it there . . . in every single one of the kids tonight.
Yes. I have four children. Yes. I know how that happened and I know that the average is, what, 2.5 kids in a household?
Let me describe, first, how my parenting life started. First, I was married. (No longer, lost my wife, go to the archive to get that story.) About a year in, still trying to come to terms with living with my now wife Andrea was pregnant. She freaked out, I stayed calm. We had Abbi – at age 24.
Five years later . . . Hannah. Andrea was ecstatic. I wasn’t, I was stressed. She was in school, I wasn’t making a lot of money and life was hard. But Hannah came and I loved her – differently, but just as much as her sister.
Hannah’s birth was difficult – and that adjective falls far short of the mark. Andrea started to hyper-contract. She had to have a c-section and then started hemorrhaging on the operating table. As a result of the poor job they did in the hospital we were told there was little or no chance Andrea would have other kids. It was hard to hear, but we had 2. That was enough.
Move forward 4 years . . . in Texas . . . and Andrea’s sick. Cramping. Things not going well and through the scars, fibrous material and such inside her body they couldn’t make out what was causing her so much trouble. At one point they determined, they thought, that she had a kind of cancer that, though curable, was a long process and she’d have to go through ultrasounds and tests for years. About a month into this process they said “good news, you’re not sick . . .” which had me elated . . . “you’re pregnant.” That hit me like a Mack truck. “And it’s twins!” That was like getting crushed by a Mack Truck hitting a wall. Andrea was angry – for years – with me for not being up and down ecstatic over that.
So here’s the thing. I have four kids now. I don’t have a wife, that ship has sailed to join the choir invisible. I never, ever, thought about having those four kids as a burden. Not when each of them was born . . . not now.
Yes, I had a hard adjustment trying to come to terms with each of them entering our lives. Once in our lives they were just that – life.
Nothing drives me crazier than the people who come up and say “how do you do it? Just one is somuch work!” Work?! Why is it work? Yes, all four kids frustrate me sometimes. Yes, all four confound me when they want to talk about video games while I’m trying to talk on the phone. Yes, they’re dirty, goofy, crazy, noisy and insane. It’s a swirl of chaos that pulls you in. So why would you fight it? I don’t. I have never, ever looked at caring for these kids as work. Changing diapers was a thing you did. The soft little head up against your neck or the tiny hands touching your face after you lift them up . . . that’s so worth it.
When I got married I never even considered or thought about what it would take to be a Dad. I really didn’t. But once they came . . . I was never thinking anything else. Sure, I make it up as I go. No, I don’t go to parenting classes or anything else. But tonight, when my daughter was filling out college essays about a piece of literature that touches you she picked my favorite Dickens novel – Great Expectations. She wrote that the character’s uncle, Joe, represented family and the ties that keep you grounded and know you’re loved . . . so you know where you came from. She wrote that these are the very things that her Dad told her every day of her life and it gave her great comfort.
So to all those men, women, parents and single people out there who look at me with wonder . . . stop calling it work. My kids are not work. I labor, sure. I toil, absolutely. I stress, pace, scream, holler, and worry. I also love, play, jump in leaf piles and hug and kiss them all . . . a lot.
Understand, everyone, that the moment you call it work . . . that’s what it becomes. We all hate work . . . and I certainly don’t hate being their Dad.
The honeymoon phase, that first few gloriously happy weeks where the kids are so glad to be home and so happy to be in their own beds and with their Dad. I enjoyed them all, I really did.
But those days are over.
The boys . . . well, they’re boys. It’s not the little snipes that every brother does to their brother. It’s the massive, blood curdling, shout from upstairs in their bedroom while I make dinner. It’s the “OUCH!!! HANNAH!“ when their sister hits them. More than that, it’s when I look at their sister and tell her to knock it off.
“I didn’t hit him hard, and he had his butt in my face!”
“Hannah, how big are you?”
“…and how big is Noah/Sam?”
It’s managing the madness. There are five of us in the household and it’s a bear keeping them under the realization that I – as much as I want to tell myself I’m still just that kid who had a baby too early – am the sole authority in the house. It’s not pride or ego . . . it’s necessity. Kids like knowing that you seem to have the answers, even if deep inside you know that you don’t. Sometimes it’s as simple as what you’re having for dinner. Others, it’s making sure you get respect – even if you’ve screwed up.
Twice I’ve had to teach that lesson in the last couple weeks. I messed up on one day, in the throngs of making breakfast, packing backpacks, all that. I swear, I’m going to write my autobiography and it will be called “one shoe – the story of a man driven mad by comfortable footwear.” In that Abbi told me she was late today . . . I would likely have to pick up the kids. Maybe I didn’t hear, maybe I forgot, who knows. When that all blew up and the kids were still at school 40 minutes after the extended day program closed, she called me . . . shouting at the top of her lungs.
In her defense, she had a massive headache and was in play rehearsals with her drama class that is normally, sorry for the pun, dramatic.
But I had to clamp down. I say the lesson to the kids all the time – it’s OK to be mad. It’s never OK to yell at me, not in front of the others, and not with the attitude that you’re right, I’m wrong, and the other side has never been told. She apologized, and to her credit, she worked out a way to get the kids picked up every day and I can work the hours I need. She’s an amazing kid, she really is.
Then there’s the other pubescent person in the house. Hannah has gotten in the habit of shouting at me and using that – tone. It’s her Mom’s tone. The one that drove me crazy . . . the one that she knew pushed my buttons and got me to get very angry at times I was trying very hard NOT to be angry. The difference here is I saw my wife as an equal and she had equal amounts of life experience. And usually, that tone had a reason and many times I caused it. With Hannah, it’s usually:
“I can’t find my uniform shirt, Daaad!”
“It’s in the laundry room.”
“I just spent ten minutes in there. IT’S NOT!”
Most the time, before she gets to NOT she looks and sees my disdain and stops. But I still have to say:
“Is that the way you talk to your Dad?!”
“Then why did you?”
The most infuriating thing, usually, is that I’ll go up the stairs to find said shirt/shoe/uniform/pants/t-shirt/sweater/school book/ruler/pencil/backpack/lunchbox and say: “if I get up there and it takes me thirty seconds to find this I’m going to be very put out!
Of course, it takes about ten.
I am trying very hard to teach something taught me by my parents. Not that I’m always right, I know that’s not the case, I admitted that to Abbi when I screwed up. What I do want them to do is treat me with respect. It’s something I think too few people teach their kids today. We tell kids it’s OK to yell at mom and dad. We let them throw tantrums and give in.
My kids aren’t horrible, I make no claim they are. But this is part of the reason why, I hope. I don’t beat on them, hit them, use a belt or switch. But consequences are a must. They are told flat out what’s expected of them. They are told that they shouldn’t just respect me, but all their authority figures. Teachers, police, judges, even the lady at the counter at Starbucks.
If you respect your parents and adults in general you’ll learn to respect each other.
Now, if they’d just stop touching each other and go to bed!
While I don’t pretend that my oldest is not taking on more responsibility, I never wanted her to think, at age 16, that she had to take over being her Mom. That first day, when I came in and told the kids their Mom had passed, I could see it in her eyes. She broke down, like we all did, but I could see her get this look of resolution in her eyes. She even at that point pulled the boys to her and started trying to step up.
I stopped that.
I wanted my 16-year-old Abbi to be . . . well . . . a 16-year-old. I get the indication of just how much I rely on her when things like picking up the kids from school at the end of the work day falls on my shoulders. I work a good 30 miles away from home. A recent study also showed that Sacramento drivers are some of the worst in the country. I have to say, I totally agree. I worked in Dallas, with horrible traffic and no alternate routes home to the Fort Worth side of the metroplex (I use that term because it really ticks people there off . . . sorry, but you are a metroplex). Even there most days my drive home, with no one to carpool with in the HOV lane, I got home quicker more miles away than I do in Sacramento.
I bring this up because Abbi normally gets the kids before the Extended Day Program, EDP, closes at 6pm. If we don’t get them by that time they charge me extraordinary fees and give lectures about what time they close. To make it in time I have to actually leave by 4:30 from work in order to get them in time. Now that I’m tight and have to worry about the amount I have for gas this next week and a half I take the train. Same thing applies. 4pm or 4:30 to get the school in time.
I bring this up because Abbi, who is in the school play, was not given a speaking role, still has to practice until 6pm nearly every day this week. The play’s not for more than a month and they’re already doing massive, long rehearsals. It’s confounding. I don’t rail against it much at home because Abbi wants to be in drama, theater, directing, writing, all of it. I look at it and just grit my teeth. But Friday, after I’d had a great day, the day went south when Abbi blew a gasket because I hadn’t followed the schedule on the fridge for when she does/doesn’t have practice. This after my morning from hell getting them all together, feeding them breakfast, and talking with members of a major corporation on the phone to the East Coast to try and arrange an interview. During all this, she “reminded me” she had rehearsal until 6pm. I didn’t hear that.
That finished, we got in a shouting match . . . that I won. She had a valid point – one I admitted to – about her having the schedule. In my defense, the Rosetta Stone is easier to read than this sheet of paper and the chicken scratches she put on the family calendar on the fridge. The reason I won, though, is because no matter what happens, I’m still Dad. If she starts shouting at me they all will and while I’ll admit when I’m wrong . . . I don’t respond to shouting. Never did, and it’s an issue of respect.
Finally, I had her help me put the dates in my phone, which I live off. The problem became the fact that every single day she has late rehearsal now. It’s killing me, because, in TV, you can’t work a steady number of hours. Doesn’t work that way. I wish it did. I managed today, but it was after much rearranging things.
Then on the way to the car from the train Abbi called . . . she’d seen the stress I was dealing with and told me she’d talked to the drama director. Could she leave 15 minutes early, since she’s not really in a speaking role, she knows the songs, and quite frankly – in my honest opinion, Abbi’s better than being in the “ensemble” anyway? The teacher agreed and Abbi had arranged getting the kids.
In one fell swoop, she manged to help. It may seem a little thing – picking up the kids from school – but when you don’t have that taken care of the world spins out of control. Really does.
So, again, she managed to take care of things. Next year, it all changes when she’s in college. Still, we’ve handled change before. Can do it again.
After all, we’re stronger together than when we’re apart.
I’ve said before that people don’t grasp that cooking real food . . . food you make at home with the kids watching you and all . . . is easier than you really think. I’m no Bobbie Flay, but I can follow a recipe. It’s not hard. I know how to read and then as time progressed I began to experiment and vary the recipes. I get that in the right hands, food is art.
Still, In caring for my kids alone I came to the realization that my kids were always more hyper, more angry, harder to control when they ate bought treats or foods. It’s still that way, I just don’t have another person to help me care for them. When I decided that my kids deserved what I had . . . an upbringing with the smell of homemade foods and treats wafting through the house, I started making food myself…everything right down to cookies and breads and cakes and all.
SO. . . here’s my first attempt at converting you.
A cooking segment. Cooking with Dave. Or as Abbi, my daughter called it, Davey Ray (rather than Rachel Ray).
Pizza is a staple in our home. It takes longer to watch this than it really does to make it. So please, avoid the grease, the cost, the preservatives . . . and know you can make your own pizza – right down to the crust!
I should probably admit, I suppose, that I dreaded today. I knew I had to meet with the school about Noah’s behavior and the school year beckons. It’s not that the school or the principal or anyone was being mean or obstinate about it, they wanted to talk about what the school year was bringing and what my observations over the summer might be. The reality is, I base much of my observations on those of my kids themselves and of my parents who filled me in quite often to how they were doing.
But the day was about as I expected. After finding out the appointment was at 1pm and I work 40 odd miles away . . . and the fact that the school dismisses at noon on the first day with no Extended Day Program (EDP) I was ready to carry a fire extinguisher because I knew my hair would be on fire. Add to this having to deal with the fact that my son has his behavioral challenges and the school’s want of trying to help him through those and I could literally hear the Tums fizzing as they hit the excess acid in my stomach.
I don’t want you to get the impression that the school itself has relegated Noah to some sort of emotional brig, either. He’s been through the ringer himself and they’re very cognizant of everything that’s happened in our lives. Still, the one saving grace I was able to tell them all is that we’re stable. I have a job, and a contract, and a new boss who I’ve worked with before. I have a 2-year lease on the home now and so we’re stable there for that amount of time at least. The inspection the owner wanted seemed to pass with little issue so I’m happy there. Where I spent so much time trying to get a routine together, the necessities – home, job, food, life – they’re all in place now.
That was a piece of comfort for the principal as we’re finally able to breathe a little. No worries the house is being sold or leased to another. No worry that I’m losing my job, unless I totally screw up. (don’t say anything, it’s still possible) I have a year before Abbi goes to college, and they’ll worry about that, but it’s on the horizon, not facing us.
The interesting thing is that the people around me at the school marvel at how I prepped for the day. I had made a triple batch of pancakes over the weekend, so I had those in the toaster and ready for breakfast. Last night I’d browned meat and put the fixings all in a crock for the slow cooker to have stew when we got home. Knowing full well I’d not be home to make dinner I told the kids they could eat when they were hungry.
I also try, when I’m home, to make sure we eat together, at the table. I’ve said this before, I know, but it’s a necessity. Time isn’t a luxury I have all the time. I utilize what I have. I know what the kids’ school day was like. I learn about Abbi’s tryout for the play. I hear what the teacher told the kids they still need for school supplies. This is an hour or so that would be spent wiling away the hours independently otherwise. It’s my sneaky way of getting them to tell me things.
The meeting, I have to say, went very well. Sure, I’m trying to get Noah into counselling, but it’s not because of his Mom. It’s because, just like his Mom – my late wife, Andrea – he has the ability to go from super sweet to insane in the beat of a heart. He will act on his impulses without thinking. Andrea had figured out how, much of the time, the stop that. The problem is, she never told me how she did it. Now poor Noah has to suffer through the both of us trying to understand how to fix his issues alone.
That’s where the loss hits us most. It’s not missing her or not having her around. It’s in the things we needed help because she understood them. Noah suffers because she left, and it’s not necessarily her fault, but the genetics that are hers swimming around in the nuclei of his cells are affecting him and the only person who could tell us how to deal with it is gone now.
But I’m around. I’ve managed, through a bout of depression and funk over the summer and a year of struggle, to give us a bedrock to build upon. I still can’t see past the next few days as I work, but I can at least show them I’m looking forward, not back.
Noah has a parent volunteer who I’ve known since we moved here that is taking him under her wing. He has me to stand for him when he needs it. It’s not his fault all the time, the kid’s just 9. His brother, Sam, has his own issues that get relegated to the back because of Noah’s behavior.
It’s that pre-planning again. When Noah needs attention, you give it to Sam, too, whether he asks or not. It makes me laugh occasionally when others marvel at the pre-planning. No, I’ve never been good at it.
Ever wonder how your kids see you . . . or more appropriately your actions? This is something that has weighed on me for far longer than just the last year or so. It was hard when I had just one – then two – little girl(s). Then came four kids with twin boys.
When my marriage hit that stressful, swirling 7-10 year mark it was like the prophecy had to be self-fulfilled. I didn’t have a “seven year itch” but I had a wife who was intent on seeming to push me toward it. I work in an industry where, by nature of the fact people are on-camera all the time, is filled with . . . sorry to put it this way . . . very beautiful people. I make no bones about that. What that statement does not say is that they are very beautiful people I am attracted to. Just because I happen to go out on a story with an attractive woman doesn’t automatically infer that I want to sleep with them. In this era I was married . . . happily much of the time.
I can look back now, though, and see the lack of self-satisfaction and low self esteem my wife must have had in those years. She’d just had one and then two children. She wanted to lose baby weight. She was getting flack from her father about being overweight even when she wasn’t. The one person who never made her feel that way or told her that – to my knowledge – was me. But that old adage of “you always hurt the ones you love” was Andrea’s mantra. When she was upset about herself she took it out on all of us. She was jealous of reporters I worked with. She was angry I spent so much time at work. I see now and then that you spend more time with your colleagues than you do with your spouse. For me it was enjoyable to come home, though, with the person who understood and supported me.
But the image for my two girls at this point was probably their parents at each others’ throats. Andrea had an innate ability to find the exact buttons to push that would make my blood boil and make me lose all control. She’d shout at me and then tell me not to shout back because the kids would hear. She’d hear our daughter coming into the living room to check on us and throw a verbal jab at me just as she was entering so I’d shout just in time to see my teary-eyed daughter walking around the corner.
Yes. I’m saying my wife, the amazing, beautiful woman I loved, fought dirty and was unfair when she fought with me.
My worry even then was my kids would see my as an angry bully who just shouted when things went wrong. It was even harder when the very raw nerves I tried to cover would be exposed by the person who knew exactly how to dissect my emotional walls and shut down my self-control. I worried about this until my doctor once told me something I had never considered. She asked if I’d ever left saying it was for good or left the house and the kids woke up with Dad not home. I never did. What she said pulled a weight off my shoulders like I was Atlas handing the sphere to Hercules. She said if my kids saw that we ended up together and woke up to see us drinking coffee in the morning or heard us kiss and make up – they heard us communicating. they had an example that we may disagree but we worked it out. I still hate how I reacted to many of those arguments, but I almost felt a sense of accomplishment.
Now, though, I see different visions reflected from my kids’ eyes.
I want very much for the kids to see me as stable. I want them to feel like they have a home, food, money to survive, all of that. No, we’re not rich and I make sure they know we have our hardships – that’s a reality they are old enough to face. Still, I want them to know they have a roof, I have a job, we can eat, we can see an occasional movie, and I treat them to some things here and there. When I feel a wave of grief or something that pulls me under I leave the room. I am fine with them crying or saddened when they think of the loss we faced, but I want them to see me as able to handle that loss and able to prop them up when they need it, not fall apart when they do.
But here’s the thing . . . I still work in an industry where I work with attractive people and meet lots of diverse subjects. I make friends. I still talk with reporters from other markets. I probably have as many female friends as male. I don’t have the Nora Ephron When Harry Met Sally syndrome. Sex isn’t in the way. I’m not looking for a date; I haven’t gone on a date; I’m not sleeping with anyone.
But I’ve seen an odd sort of confusion in my kids the last few months. I had a friend stay in my house. I met a friend for a drink one night. I went to lunch with another. I’ve traded emails, all of that. I have photographer friends from other stations who I’ve met for a beer. I have reporter friend in Dallas who I’ve decided is my little sister even though she’s not related in any way. I write and am friends with Good Enough Mother Rene Syler. More than half are male friends. Many are not.
I try to reassure my kids that I’m painfully resistable. I am overweight – by 28 pounds – at least. I have grey hair. I have wrinkles on my face. I am, at least for awhile still, a bit broken. I lived half my life with the same woman. I’m not jumping into the dating pool. Not now. Not sure when I might if ever. I wonder sometimes if the kids are less worried about my doing something and more worried about my getting hurt.
At the end of the day, I think they know I’m keeping no secrets from them. I have forced no people upon my children. Stability is compromised by secrecy so I keep no secrets from them. If out of the blue one day I decided to go on a date they’d know.
Still, what I have to get across to them – and apparently haven’t gotten across very well – is that as much as I love and adore them; as much as I enjoy and soak in every fraction of every second I get to spend with them, sometimes I need to talk to another adult. Sometimes that adult looks like me. Sometimes they’re younger. They’re always interesting and worthy of my attention because I no longer have the teenage hormonal desire to just hang out in a bar and look for the most attractive person I can find with no thought to their thoughts and opinions. When I get asked “what do you mean it was just the two of you” or “at their house?” or “why are you emailing such-and-such” I see not panic but worry in their eyes.
The thing is, though, sometimes, you need pauses in conversation. Kids aren’t good at that. Sometimes you need to talk to someone who thought they were an outsider in their world, like you did, and didn’t really care what others thought. I thought that sometimes, I don’t believe my kids did . . . which I see as a success in their upbringings. But sometimes, you need an empathetic ear or a strong word or advice. Sometimes it’s a guy. Sometimes it’s a girl.
But sometimes . . . you just need another adult to talk to.
I usually try to keep things fairly even in my household. There are certainly issues that I don’t expect, things like Noah, one of the twins, getting suspended because he can’t control his temper. Hannah, my middle, neglecting the homework and forgetting to turn it in. Sometimes she just plain doesn’t do it and lies about it, covering it up like an expert spy, rearranging paperwork and making it all look normal. The energy she puts into avoiding the work would have finished it in half the time, for Christ’s sake. Abbi tends to have evenings, if she’s not locked away in her room, with me.
As a result, sometimes the kids get less time than their other siblings. It’s not on-purpose and I don’t want to actually make things look that uneven. I realize, with complete understanding, that those four kids have all differing personalities, differing needs, and completely different reactions to having that time without any attention.
Sam has been trying to get me to work on an electronics lab he got for his birthday since his birthday – over a month. Yet Noah got me to help him build his just a week after, something I horribly regret. The main consolation is that I couldn’t get Noah’s to work, so maybe my help isn’t so keen after all. Hannah likes to learn guitar and had lessons for a year or more and shows me new songs she’s written and asks me to show her things. Noah brings out his guitar and looks crestfallen because he’s still trying to figure it out. I need to get him lessons, but then Hannah will beg to get them again and the monetary cycle starts all over again.
So tonight I decided, after a long, stressful day at work, that I’m going to even things out a bit. Abbi had spent the entire day at a pool party with friends. Then, in a day surrounded with texts while at a press conference and telling me she needs gasoline right when she needs it, not before she leaves the house . . . asks if she can go to a baseball game at 5:45. I had a 6pm story that was running.
I told her that it was in the hands of her brothers and sister. They would have to wait at home for about an hour until I got home and if they weren’t comfortable with that they would tell her. They were OK. So on the way home, right after 6pm, I told the kids that I was coming. They asked what I was making for dinner and I had no idea.
On the way I made a decision that if their sister got to have a fun night so would they. Not just a decent meal or playing games at home, we’d go out. Really go out. So I raced into the house and told them we were leaving. I made PB&J for them and told them we were heading out.
“Where are we going, Dad?”
“It’s a surprise.”
“Is it far?”
“What is it?”
“You’ll see when you get there.”
Now, this isn’t a commercial – but the boys and Hannah have been dying to see Men in Black III. I debated, since it’s PG-13, but thought I’d look into it and there was nothing sexual and it was all alien kind of violence. So we got in the car. When I pulled into the parking lot, the Manoucheri humor came out.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if Dad took us to the theater and then we went downstairs and he said ‘I just brought you along to buy shoes!'”
As we walked up to the entrance, they all looked up and I heard Sam mumble to his brother – “too bad Dad won’t let us see MIB III, I really want to see that.”
Then I went up and said “give me three kid and one adult for the IMAX 3D Men in Black.”
You’d think I’d won the lottery they were so happy. We got popcorn and drinks, went in, the theater wasn’t very full, and we sat and watched the previews, the movie, and the kids were giggling, gasping, and just . . . having a good time.
Sure, Abbi wasn’t there, but they had a blast. In the middle of the movie’s 2nd act I felt little hands wrap around my arm, and looked down and Noah, with the giant, yellow glasses like he was some miniature throwback to the Disco era, wrapped his arms around mine . . . and gave me a hug.
The smiles lasted the rest of the night, and when we got home, they were still talking about the movie.
It’s not often I do something so simple but so right, but when I sat at home, Abbi walking in and sitting next to me to let me know everything she’d done, I realized that today . . . today at least . . . I got it right.
I got home tonight in a fairly decent mood. I was rushing a bit, picking up a guitar from the shop that had needed some fret work done. All the years of playing “Dot,” a bright 7-Up green Clapton Stratocaster on stage took a physical toll on its frets and it was having issues. The music store down the road has a great shop and they did the work and it wasn’t too expensive, so I was happy.
Happy, that is, until I got home.
It started before I even entered the house. The garage door wasn’t even open all the way and I saw the inside door, leading into the dining room hallway, opening. Noah’s small frame was peeking between the crack. He’s begun doing only this because, driving an SUV, you can’t see the little guy once you get a certain distance into the garage. On more than one occasion I have slammed on the brakes worried I might hit him. Many times I see this as his happy, contented greeting that his Dad’s finally home. Not today.
If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about next: There’s a look, a sort of pallor that your kids seem to take on when they are struggling with telling you something. In this case, it was really just the beginning.
He started with tattling on his brother. Now, as shy and abashedly quiet as I was as a kid, you’d think this wouldn’t bother me, but my older brother taught me that at a certain point in your life you stop tattling and act with some honor. I’ve been working with Noah on this for some time; knowing when you should tell – to help or save someone from injury, what have you – and when you should just keep quiet as it’s none of your business. This time it was one of the latter.
“Sam’s up in his room, he’s in trouble,” was the greeting I got. I hadn’t even pulled my laptop case out of the car.
“He said a bad word.”
At this point I saw Abbi’s hand reach around the door and slap him in the back of the head.
“I took care of this, Noah. It’s not anyof your business!”
Abbi saw the query on my face and simply said “they’ve all been absolutely NUTS today. I want to kill them all!”
Bear in mind, that I have to force myself not to chuckle or smile when she says these things because at the point I get home, at most, she’s spent 3 hours with the kids. Not all day, 3 hours. Even Monday, Memorial Day, when she was supposed to watch them, she ended up after 3-4 hours at her aunt’s house and didn’t have to really care for them. So to hear this after just a couple hours I have to bite my lip. Just a little.
But getting inside, it was clear: they’d gone absolutely bonkers. In just a couple short hours, every empty storage bin, every blanket, and 90% of their video game boxes were scattered all over the upper landing and open hallway to their bedroom. Sam had lost his mind, he really had. He said some bad word, which must have been particularly atrocious because Abbi wouldn’t even tell me what it was. He was talking at 1,000 miles an hour, which makes his very slight stutter become a pronounced stutter. When Noah tried to say what he’d done, he reached over, while I’m trying to get out of everyone what happened, and punches his brother, with a large amount of force, in the arm. The tears start, the screaming begins, Abbi goes into her room . . . and it’s welcome home, Dad.
“What the hell is wrong with you guys?!
Hannah volunteered the problem: “At EDP today they gave us all lemonade.”
“It was the sort of packaged lemonade.”
“And cookies,” added Noah. I groaned.
“And a blueberry Muffin!” added Sam, seemingly proud of the massive crack-like reaction he’d had to the corn syrup and preservatives.
Bear in mind, by this point, I haven’t even boiled the noodles for dinner. Given my trip to the music store (which I now sincerely regretted) I had bought the pre-packaged tortellini and pesto and was about to boil them. In the middle of finally riding the back end of the wave of insanity Noah comes up and says “I should probably tell you about recess today, Dad.”
I literally dropped the package of ravioli on the counter.
“This other kid cut in front of me in line and I told him he shouldn’t. It was his fault and it just got out of control then.”
I couldn’t help it. I’m not sure if the other stuff hadn’t happened if I’d have reacted any better, but I lost it. I really did, and I’m not proud of it, but I did.
“Now what did you do?!”
“I have a slip you have to sign. It’s not a yellow slip, though! It’s just a note to the teacher.”
“Do you not get what’s going on here?! Do you really not understand that every . . . single . . . slip is just leading to your ultimate goal of being suspended or kicked out?! Did having this kid in front of you really slow down your getting onto the playground?!”
“In fact, you ended up staying out of recess, didn’t you?! For the love of God, Noah, is it really worth it?! Because I don’t get it. Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s OK just to let the guy in front of you. It’s not worth it. Swallow your damn pride, eat the words, and once . . . just once . . . let the other kid be the freaking idiot instead of you huh?!”
It’s hard. The school keeps pushing that Noah’s in trouble because of his Mom dying. The doctors tell me it’s not. In fact, he’s had problems with his temper since kindergarten. I’ve said it before: Andrea had the same problems controlling temper and impulses. She somehow mastered them, but never told me what the hell she did. She doesn’t have to face the legacy of her genetics, I do. And I have no idea what I’m doing, not with this.
I told Noah we’d have to get him back into counselling and he may even have to go to another school, while his sister and brother go to this one. He started to cry.
After I got the noodles out and started to drain them, I sat at the table and went through the mail. Noah sat next to me and looked up at me:
“Dad . . . will those counselors be like the one I had to see at the school?”
I could see his eyes a little watery. I knew why he was worried. In March, after the anniversary of Andrea’s death, the school had “grief counselors” on-hand because another school Mom had passed away. Without asking or permission from me, they sent Noah and Sam to the counselor who, upon recounting by the boys, made them recall, over and over again, how their Mom died, when she died, what they went through, why the felt that way . . . even today they’re nowhere near as recovered as they had been before the so-called counseling. Noah was fearful I was going to put him through all that again.
“No, buddy. Those counselors didn’t do this right. None of this is about your Mom, I know that.”
It’s not, either. Every time someone talks to Noah they ask him if he misses his Mom . . . then asks if he’s upset and that’s why he acted out. What’s he going to say? “No, I don’t miss her, yes I like acting out?”
Hannah kept trying through the rest of the night to say silly or goofy things. I was short, snappy, and suddenly exhausted from it all. We made it to the regular nightly routine, but I’m not sure I really did them much good for the night. The sugar and sweetners and corn syrup made Sam absolutely insane. Hannah snapped and continued to yell at both her brothers, and Abbi couldn’t handle it and was getting shorter with them than I was – she is her mother’s daughter.
So often we project what we think is or should be happening or being felt by kids. They’re smarter than we give them credit for, they really are. Noah has a temper he wants to control but needs the tools. But rather than helping him with them, so many want simple answers. He’s sad and grieving, so that must be it. And the others, I just don’t think the rest of the world gets it. 99% of people are able to eat all this stuff with no problems. They just don’t see that mine can’t. Give it to them . . . and then you get the evening I just had.
It may be sugary sweetness, but it just turns the whole day sour.
Trust is not an easy commodity in my house. I have a massive ability to hold a grudge. I’ve tried, for the great former colleagues and few close friends of mine, to watch news at my old station. I can’t do it. I feel my blood pressure rise and the ability to watch the news completely goes away. It’s not like the days when I had a healthy competition with the other stations, like I did in Dallas. No, it’s more the hot-blooded, angry, “monumental intolerance for stupidity” and grudge I hold against how I was treated that I decided was all of it. I have members of Andrea’s family I hold a grudge against, whether it’s totally warranted in others’ minds or not.
Then there’s the ability to forgive. My children have a large capacity for this. They don’t when someone lies to them, particularly someone they care about. The one thing they seem to have gotten from their mother. Andrea, when she was alive, wouldn’t forgive, even me, for the smallest transgression. Even if it was to save her from any amount of distress or embarrassment.
I’ve said all along there would be hiccups and minor things that would happen in our lives. We’ve had a lot of little things, small incidents, the worst that I’ve had is pretty serious: a one-day suspension because my son. Noah, one of the twins, has had a hard time controlling his temper. I thought that would be the only thing and hopefully the worst thing that I had to deal with after losing my wife.
Then came Saturday.
I had held off on so many things due to my poor planning and finances that I had a head full of shaggy hair and an empty pantry because I’ve used so much of our flour, sugar, broth, all of it. All the meats were completely used up. I had a window of only a few hours to get my hair cut and then go on a mammoth run to the grocery store to restock all the wares of our pantry. I did just that. The only thing I had to worry about was that Hannah, my middle daughter, had to meet with her best friend to complete a school project they’d been working on for weeks. On my way out the door at roughly 1pm I told my oldest, Abbi, through her door that her brother, Noah, was going with me. Just the two of us with Hannah, Sam and Abbi at home. About halfway through the trip I realized there was no way I was going to be able to get Hannah to her friend’s house.
I texted Abbi and told her that I needed her to drive Hannah. I was only about 1/4 of the way through the grocery store and there was no way I was going to be able to get through the checkout and get home in time to take her, even if I’d cut the trip short and headed straight to the stand now. I worked through the majority of the food I could buy at Food4Less. (It’s owned by Nugget, one of the best grocery stores in the country. On top of that, it’s one of the cheapest stores in my area, particularly for name-brand stuff.) I spent as much time, going aisle by aisle, in anticipation of as much of our empty pantry as I could.
I am going to sound a little strange here as I normally tell you how I treat and love my children all equally – but differently. None of the kids are the same.
– Abbi is perky, has that similar mind to mine in terms of taste and is like her mother, reliable to the point of extreme. Do something too wrong and she thinks about it forever.
– Hannah is a flake. It’s pure and simple. I love her to death, I’m a middle child myself, and I get her. She remembers every word of Avatar the cartoon and cannot clean her room to save her soul. She’s like an extreme girl-version of me. I wish she wasn’t.
– The boys . . . Sam is a flirt, built like a wrestler, and a pure marshmallow. He’s so sweet he gets neglected by the others a lot of the time. He’s loving, cute, and the protector of our family.
– Noah has impulse control, is so loving, and wants to be the center of attention. He’s unfortunately absorbed so many of the worst qualities of all of us, but is the sweetest little love so you forgive them.
Sam has a horrific fear of being left or abandoned.
So imagine my terrible surprise when the phone rang yesterday. I was on the way home, the back of the car filled with groceries. It was Abbi.
Now, ever since Abbi was a little baby, the moment I saw her lying on her mother’s tummy, I could tell when something was wrong. That first day . . . the first few hours . . . I knew the nurses had screwed up. The baby’s supposed to be allowed to eat fairly quickly. After they cleaned her up, bundled her up, got her to her Mom and everything, I could see her opening her mouth, trying desperately, instinctively, to find food. The nurses wouldn’t let us and kept trying to get us to the next, smaller room. I raised holy hell until they got us bottles of formula and she came straight to it. When it turned out she was allergic to some protein in everything – from formula, to soy, to everything else, I could sense it when she hurt or was sad. When she was little, too. There’s a tone – a panic – in her voice when it’s really bad. I hear a little of her Mom in that response.
Abbi called me and before she even spoke, over the phone, I knew.
“I’m going to kill Hannah!”
I was more than a little confused. “What’s wrong?”
“She didn’t tell me Sam was home . . . that she wasn’t with you.”
I knew what was coming before it even came out of Abbi’s mouth.
“Poor Sam. I guess we got out the garage, down the road, and he knew we’d left. He followed the car, running down the street . . . and we were gone. The neighbors saw him and apparently calmed him down. He was home when I got there.”
I rely very heavily on Abbi. Very heavily. She picks up the kids from school. She is supposed to watch them until I get home and I even get her to start heating the food for dinner when things are running behind. So when she fails spectacularly it’s hard on me. Hannah would get it, sure, but it’s so rare that Abbi fails at this level I was more disappointed than angry. I’ve worried this might happen, but relied on her similarities to her mother and thought it couldn’t happen. But she loves to avoid us by going into her room, her own little space. That’s fine when I’m home, not when I’m away.
“I told you Noah was going with me, Abbi, not Sam.”
“I though you said both boys.”
“No, Abbi, I said Noah. I even said it twice so you knew. I said Hannah and Sam were home!”
“Well…I didn’t hear that.”
Maybe she didn’t. That’s my failure, I should have looked her in the eye and made her repeat it.
“Hannah was there next to Sam watching TV! Why didn’t she say something?!” Abbi spit out, finally.
“Well, she’ll get her talking to, Abbi, but you have to watch. You were in charge. Whenever I get in the car, what do I say?”
“Do we have everybody?”
“Exactly. I’m not being funny. I look back, do a head count, everything. Lord, Abbi, of all the kids to have this happen…Sam?!”
“Oh my God, poor Sam. Oh, I feel so awful…”
As I said, Sam is afraid of being abandoned. He protects our family and looks to our home and wants us all together. He reacted to his mother’s loss by trying to make sure he doesn’t lose anyone again. He knows we’re OK, and we work on his fear. It’s no paralyzing, it’s just normal for what we’ve been through. So for him to be the one playing McCauley Culkin for 15 minutes . . . not good.
I got home, and Sam was there . . . a bit pale, but smiling. Like always. He was his normal, calm self. He looked at me and just said he was OK. No big deal. He proudly walked up and said “see what I put on the fridge Dad?” It was a list of all the phone numbers. Mine. My work phone. Abbi’s. His Aunt’s . . . Grandma and Grandpa . . . and our friends who might help pick them up when I’m in a bind.
“This cannot happen again,” was my line. “Not ever.” When his sister got home, we had a very long and serious discussion.
“Did you forget something in your hurry to get out the door, Hannah?”
She has this habit when she’s done something wrong and knows it, looking down but her eyes looking up at you.
“Sam . . . ”
Yeah, Sam. He was right next to you, Hannah. Playing video games together you went down the stairs, through the empty garage, and got into Abbi’s car . . . WITHOUT HIM! He went chasing you down the street and had to get comforted by neighbors who we don’t even know. Do you want CPS to come to the house? Because, I can guarantee, they’re not a very good state agency. They’ll start fiddling with things and our lives will never be the same if they think we can’t handle this.”
It was an extreme example to make, but had to be done.
Now I force Abbi to be out in the main rooms with the kids when I’m not home. Even I don’t go in another room with the door shut when I’m home. There’s just too much could happen. I sleep with my bedroom door open. I also tell her she has to ask if they have everyone when they go out the door and into the car, looking back to check.
I know I say this all the time, something I push into my kids . . . and your thoughts as well.
“We’re better together than we are apart,” is my motto. I mean that, and I want to ensure that the kids get it.
“If we’re not looking out for each other, who will?”
Sam looked at me and said “It’s OK, Dad. I know what to do. I’ll make sure I call you and wait if it happens again.”
I looked at Sam and told him he didn’t have to worry. It wouldn’t happen again.
“How do you know that, Dad?”
“Because, Sam,” was my line, “because I’ve talked with everyone and told them it simply can’t”
“That’s right,” said Abbi, “it will never happen again. Because we’re better together than we are apart.”