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.
I’m a nightmare for a lot of those parents who push for preservative-free, gluten-free, allergen-free, nut-free, whole foods types. I don’t do it on purpose, I really don’t. I had a lot of allergies as a kid, though I don’t pretend that it’s the same crucial and life-threatening allergies you had. My asthma was far more threatening than it is now, and I’m doing far better now than I was as a kid. Sure, I had allergies and breathing problems but I was fortunate enough that I was neither pushed to do too much by my parents and I wasn’t babied too much so I never felt that I couldn’t do something if I wanted to try.
But my point is that I use peanut butter nearly every day in my kids’ lunches. It’s not some “fight the power” issue to somehow send a message to people or anything. I totally understand the sensitivity to nuts, the reaction that could seriously harm someone, all of it . . . my issue is that I have a very tight budget. My kids’ lunches have a peanut butter sandwich every day. The reasoning is pretty simple: even at its priciest, peanut butter is cheap, filled with protein, vitamins, and they like it. My kids know who may or may not have a sensitivity and they’re sure to stay away, wash their hands after lunch, all of it.
But the one thing that’s really caught my eye lately is all the commercials, ads, billboards, everything for foods and items that aren’t simply an allergen-reaction fueled campaign. There’s been a myriad of Chex commercials for “gluten free” cereals. Gluten free pizza crust. Gluten free this, that, the other. Preservative-free foods. Plastics-free bottles. Filtered water from your tap. Reverse-osmosis fueled spring water with all the minerals and vitamins removed. There’s a freaking bar/restaurant in New York that’s selling distilled water for ungodly amounts of money. I watch and wonder . . .
How the hell are our kids going to survive?
I get it . . . some people don’t want or can’t have gluten…though I don’t know how that’s happening. There’s a fear of carbohydrates. There’s a backlash against meats.
When I realized I was making all the decisions for my kids’ lives it became clear that I had to start doing that: making decisions. One of those wasn’t the avoidance of glutens or preservatives… it was reverting to life as I remembered it. I cannot do what my parents did, not just because I’m no longer married but because I work 8 hours most days and then get home. I wanted, though, for my kids to have what I had. Sure, every kid thinks they’re under the thumb of their parents but when you have your own children you realize what it is you wish you could do for your own children. Mine was trying to bring them some of what I had.
It started with breakfast. I fix it for the kids every morning. Working around my schedule, I might make a triple batch of waffles and cook them – freezing them – and then serving them via toaster each morning. I might do pancakes or the simple scrambled eggs. I generally make the breakfast myself.
Same goes for the desserts. I realized early on that Sam was affected heavily either by the processed sugars or corn syrup or preservatives or whatever in the bought treats. Make chocolate chip cookies at home he’s fine. Buy a bag of Oreos and give him more than one – he bounces off the ceiling. As a result I make all the desserts myself. I bought a Sunbeam mixer with better power so I could make more. I use the Betty Crocker “Cookie Book” my Mom got me. I learned a lot from my Mom – whether I knew it or not – and as a result I can cook, bake, all of it. Give me a recipe and the odds are pretty decent I can figure it out.
The thing here is that I have a theory: I don’t necessarily think it’s the gluten, allergens, chemicals, or preservatives that are causing the havoc in our lives. It’s the convenience we think we’re attaining but not really seeing. We buy cookies rather than make them. We nuke foods rather than cook them. We buy McDonald’s rather than frying up a burger. The problem with that? We are feeding the machine ourselves.
I could say it’s sooooo much easier and I’d be lying. If you absolutely despise cooking or baking you won’t do this. I don’t mind it and my kids have a far wider pallette than McNuggets and hot dogs. We drink water out of the tap or the fridge – I buy bottled water for lunches but use a reusable bottle much of the time. We try new desserts and treats.
We could be afraid of every little thing, but where gluten occurs when you’re using dough or cooking with flour, why avoid it so much? I worry more about the chemicals and preservatives and when you buy cold cereal because it’s got no gluten rather than making homemade waffles or pancakes or eggs . . . something that takes just a few more minutes or steps . . . what’s the problem there? Not the gluten in my mind. It’s the short attention span and need to “want it now”.
I don’t criticize the gluten-free-ers or those who suffer from sensitivity to these things. I do believe our reliance on pre-packaged foods and not making our own created the sensitivities we face today.
I say this knowing full well I ate Twinkies and Reese’s Pieces as a kid – and yes, I know Twinkies supposedly have rocket fuel in them – but I didn’t have a Twinkie a day . . . nor did I have Reese’s. I did have a home…filled with what I needed and some of what I wanted…because that’s what you do for your family.
So Saturday I drove California’s traffic artery – Interstate 5 – down to Los Angeles. I won’t chronicle the drive again, you’ve seen that. However, it’s worth repeating a couple things.
I had a picture with me . . . a picture of Andrea I found that I’d forgotten was even taken. Obviously, I had hidden it so Andrea wouldn’t destroy it in her zeal to remove photos she thought looked bad.
So I took it not because I was feeling nostalgic, but to remind myself that I wasn’t running from her . . . that I was doing something I hadn’t normally done. I was doing this so I’d be able to share it . . . even if it was with her, captured in a moment of wind-blown happiness twenty years ago. It was the kind of thing that she would have convinced me was fun and necessary twenty-one years ago.
So I arrived in Los Angeles and realized I hadn’t paid much attention to where I was staying . . . and then saw the hotel and was amazed.
If you look up on the left side of that hotel, in the corner curved-room where the art deco look is at its height . . . six floors up is me. I loved the room. I loved the history more . . . Clark Gable; Mae West; Marilyn Monroe; Diana Ross forcing Tim Curry to be her elevator man; OK . . . so Howard Hughes kept a bunch of mistresses there, and maybe that’s why my room was really small, but I didn’t care. I could see downtown LA
If you look, the second building from the left in the big group of skyscrapers . . . the Capitol Records building.
I could also look down from my room to the rooftop pool:
Now, I went down there, is very cool. But I have to be honest, there was more silicone there than skin. Not just in the women. I loved the hotel, the history . . . where Iggy Pop tried to jump from his room to that pool. How Werner Klemperer, the man playing Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes saved the building. You see, the Sunset was designated a historical site – an apartment building with tons of Hollywood’s history soaked into its walls. However, there were no laws in the 1980’s that prevented demolition of historic sites. Klemperer refused to leave, continuing to live in his apartment and causing a legal quagmire that slowed the project until the laws were passed that protected the hotel. Now . . . it’s amazing and I get to be part of that history.
But my trip wasn’t just to see a really cool hotel . . . with its art deco hallways and stairwells:
There was a reason for the trip. I was on the way to the Catalina Bar and Grill . . . one of the best jazz clubs on Sunset. Now, you don’t have to enjoy jazz to enjoy my story here. When I decided to leave town I didn’t want to do the exact same thing. When I found out that jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell was playing I had to go…just had to. Burrell has played with Coltrane, Ellington, Billie Holiday . . . he’s amazing – so much so that Jimi Hendrix said he’d kill to sound like Burrell if he could do it.
I decided to walk . . . the trip wasn’t too bad. A half-hour walk, couple miles . . . and it wasn’t really hot. So I took the opportunity to walk down Sunset. I spotted a huge crowd ahead of me and they’d blocked off the sidewalk. I was initially aggravated because I didn’t want to zig-zag on the way. Instead, I walked up and stumbled into a red carpet event for AIDS prevention. With my little point and shoot I walked up to the press corps and joined them. Nobody looked, noticed, or said a thing. I popped off shots:
Then my daughter texted me a few questions . . . the text message alert on my phone is set to the Woody Woodpecker laugh. Suddenly photographers started stopping and looking at me . . . and I quickly realized it was time to keep making my way to the club. I have other photos – you’ll have to wait for weekend to see those.
I got to the Catalina and was told I’d have to go through the garage. I went in and it was like walking into All the President’s Men. Small portions in darkness with a spotlight over the entrance, hidden in an alcove in the corner of the garage.
But when I got in . . . I was given a table literally in front of the stage.
The club gave Kenny a stool to sit on when he plays but he barely sat on it. At eighty-one he was spry, light on his feet, moving constantly, and playing better than most people I’ve heard that are 1/4 his age. I desperately wanted to give you a video of him playing but the club was vigilant about not letting that happen.
Still, I was able to get photos:
He played two sets. In the middle he gave credit to the Friends of Jazz at UCLA, convinced a friend to sing from the audience, killing his amp and playing acoustic with a microphone. He told amazing stories from the stage.
He also signed a CD for my brother.
He shook my hand, thanked me for coming, and told me how happy he was to have my brother and I enjoy his music. He told me how much he enjoyed recording his last two CDs and how he loves this club for how they treat him. He spent more time with each person than you’d find from most musicians today.
I was happy and impressed the club was full . . . a good audience for such a talented player. With his history – playing with biggest names in jazz’s height from the ’50s on – he could be arrogant or bitter or stand-offish. Instead, he was kind, generous, and simply the man you’d want him to be if you were a fan. Burrell smiled constantly and was happy to be there. He was even happier on the stage, playing amazing things seemingly no slower than he was at his height.
It was an honor to see him . . . I have no better word for it. He was amazing. His band was just as talented and seemed to have just as much fun. To hear such an amazing group, whose talent just pours off the stage, I was taken with how they made it look easy. There was no ego, no push to be the center of attention. They played music. In a world so surrounded by awful music with no musicians and auto-tune pushing for perfection these five men made perfect music with no technological push. They are just that talented.
I went back to the hotel happier than I was last year at this time. An amazing thing, an amazing night, and I still had the trip home ahead of me . . . but that’s for tomorrow.
It may seem a bit outmoded, but I hit the road, this the second year in a row I left home to be away from Sacramento on my birthday. I promised a Saturday dispatch from the field, and that’s what you’re getting . . . sort of.
You see, I started in the morning. I wasn’t nervous, but I woke up, like every other day, at 5:45. Not sure why, couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up, grabbed my bag, took the change of clothes I wanted out of the bag and got in the car.
I took my tunes:
I had a picture of my girl…
And I hit the road.
The picture is important. I tried to find another way around this. An amazing friend wanted to bring me to a music festival but plane tickets aren’t cheap on good days. Let alone a day before travel.
The other is that I just can’t take being alone right now. Not this weekend. I would love nothing more than to be with my Hannah – my favorite birthday present – on this day. I’m not, though. For the same reasons the festival didn’t work, I cannot afford to go to Nebraska to see her. So Skype and Facetime will have to do.
The reason for this? I can’t take a month off and just disappear. I so want to. I’ve wanted to since the day Andrea died. I have wanted nothing more than to get in a car or jump on a train or a plane and head somewhere I’ve never been, never seen, and never considered. I should think the why would be obvious: I can’t face this day without her. It’s really, really, hard. I know I’m a writer and should be more prosaic about how to describe it but I can’t.
So last year I went to a comedy show that was baudy, funny, and Andrea would never have thought to do it: Hollywood Babble-On with Ralph Garmin and Kevin Smith. I have to admit, it’s Garmin’s show, by the way, and he’s amazing. Smith – he’s the modern day equivalent of Dean Martin but with weed instead of alcohol. He’s the stoned out guy who leads you off the path and Garmin brings you back.
Then I drove to San Francisco and took the Pacific Coast Highway all the way down. I barely made it in time for the show.
This year I drove I-5. I stopped at historical sites:
Then I stopped somewhere Andrea always talked about but would never stop. Andrea, you see, always wanted to get there . . . get to where we’re going. We never stopped. So I stopped at Anderson’s, home of the world’s best split pea soup.
If I’d never stopped I’d never have met the hard working, cute blonde waitress at the counter. She told me she marveled at how many people came in and asked what other soups they have . . . when it clearly says split pea is their soup . . . their mainstay . . . and the cafe serves other food but no other soups. It reminds me of home with the German decor and the feel of Omaha’s Bohemian Cafe. I thank her, tip her soundly, though she won’t go on-camera while on duty, and head out the door.
Next stop . . . over the highway. While I have no pictures – they didn’t want any – I met an amazing group of soldiers on maneuvers outside Bakersfield stopping to eat at an IHOP inside a gas station. To a person they were respectful, a bit uncomfortable, but always polite and interesting. They milled around the outside, buying water and coke and whatever they needed to sustain them the rest of their trip.
Then I saw more memories of home: dust devils in the fields between Bakersfield and the mountains.
Then over the mountains and into Los Angeles.
This took me awhile and no other pictures. You can see here that I parked on the median to take the photo. Traffic necessitated going to LA sans camera.
But when I got here, I looked for my hotel, which I found just looking at a map and pointing. Seriously. Just that. What I found, though very far from where my nighttime destination shall be, is amazing. I’m staying at the Sunset Tower Hotel. I had no idea until I read the history that I’m staying where Rita Hayward, John Wayne, Mae West . . . Hollywood’s elite stayed. Truman Capote called it “where every scandal that ever happened, happened.” I’m in a corner room, in the circular corner of the building. I like to imagine that Carol Lombard was here . . . though it’s likely one of the rooms Howard Hughes kept for his mistresses. But I don’t care.
My end goal? Going to see jazz great Kenny Burrell. Kenny has played with Duke Ellington; John Coltrane; Jimi Hendrix said it’s what he desperately wanted to sound like. SRV copied him and Wes Montgomery playing Burrell’s Chitlins con Carne .
So Monday you’ll get my display of my hotel, Kenny, all of it. But before you criticize or speak . . . I didn’t take this trip to forget Andrea. She’s here in the car via photo. It’s cheesy . . . I’ll take her with me to the club for dinner and the show. I’ll put her by my bed. I’m not ready to let her go. You see, the amazing trip would have been with my friend because I miss sharing my birthday. Even on that awful, horrible night I got in an argument that nearly ended in my divorce, I ended the night with the woman I love. Now I’m in Los Angeles doing amazing things, seeing amazing things . . . and I’m sharing them with a computer screen. No offense to you, my wonderful and talented, smart readers, but I’d trade this blog for tonight with Andrea . . . seeing an amazing musician in a storied club and sleeping in a hotel with such history.
But that’s not reality. You are. So I drive . . . and will drive back through the PCH again just to have stops and adventures. This way, I can tell the story – as much to her as to you – and know I did something different. . . better with my birthday than I might have otherwise.
A year ago . . . almost exactly . . . I made a decision to leave town. Not permanently, certainly, but temporarily. My birthday is a strange event for me. There are several events, in fact, in my family’s life that have dual celebrations, dual meanings, and a strange dichotomy to the feelings I get with them.
I share my birthday with my middle child, Hannah. It’s interesting because the uninitiated might think I find this troublesome. I might, you might say, wish that it was my day, not shared with someone else. That would be far from reality, though. I loved the fact that my daughter was born on my birthday. For much of her early life, by the way, it was one of the few things that she would relate to me and actually break down and act like, well, like the other kids when it comes to her Dad. It’s not that we didn’t get along or argued or didn’t like each other. Hannah is amazing. She’s bright, she’s artistic, she plays guitar, just an amazing kid.
When she was born, though, she was to me what Abbi was to Andrea. She was the kid who cuddled her Mom. She fought me, argued, cried, screamed and thought I was this horrible, angry person. When I would sit next to Andrea and hold her hand or she’d put her head on my shoulder, Hannah would see that, walk up, and immediately insert herself between us. Her view of the world was just a bit askew from everyone else’s. While I think, at age 1-9, she thought I was angry about that I actually admired it. She was more like me than she realized and I believe that’s what frustrated her so much.
But after she lost her Mom that all changed. She’s like her brother Sam in that she wants to make sure we’re all safe and she likes to sit next to me, put her head on my shoulder, hug me, all of it. I don’t dislike this, I love it, but I also have three others that are trying to do the exact . . . same . . . thing.
But last year was really hard. I had lost Andrea, my home, my job . . . all of that. I had a new home, a new job, and the kids were in Nebraska because I had no time off. I managed to set up the house those initial days and there wasn’t much more to do so I headed out to drive the Pacific Coast Highway and end up in Los Angeles. I needed to leave and I mean leave for a good long while. I wasn’t able to, though, so a weekend was all I could really manage. The drive took a long time, which I wanted, and the trip was a whirlwind.
Now I’m a year later. I have vacation time, but cannot take it. It’s ratings; my news director has left for bigger things; and programming, etc, make for a difficult situation for myself and the station if I want to take time off. So instead, I’m home, again, on my birthday.
This isn’t a “woe is me, it’s my birthday” message. I actually am more upset I cannot be with Hannah, my birthday buddy. I’ve sent her gifts, talked via video phone, all of that. But it’s nice to share it and see someone happy to be there on your birthday.
Andrea treated me really well in the early days of our relationship, on ever birthday. She made a cake our first year together – something she said over and over was not easy or fun for her. She bought me clothes to make me look better, threw parties, all of that. But when we had Abbi . . . and then Hannah . . . and she began to think I messed up her birthday too many times my birthday started to falter. I didn’t mind, I had never, really, thought of my birthday as too amazing a day. But where I failed but tried every year for her, by the time I’d hit 30 she’d given up trying. Hannah’s day was bigger, harder, and more stressing. When friends of mine decided to throw me a party for my 30th and Andrea hadn’t thought about it the day turned into one of the worst of our marriage. It wasn’t because I started the fight, it was, I know now years later, that she hadn’t thought of it herself and she felt about an inch tall.
I was selfish that day and just added to it. The night ended with her crying and telling me she just wanted to have the night with me . . . alone. It was my turn to be 2 inches tall. The only good thing to come of it was my brother, friends and I using my maddened tirade of “because it’s my fucking birthday!” as a staple for whenever we are angry about something.
From that point on I just didn’t feel like my birthday was a great day, not really one worth celebrating. It will be 12 years since that day this year and I ache knowing how I see every second of that day seared into my brain. I remember every vowel and consonant of our conversations and I still cringe remembering Andrea’s tirade, followed by mine, in front of my brother and two of my very good friends. I look at it, still, as one of the lowest points of my life until last year.
But that same day one of those very people in the room slapped me back into reality. It’s where the line came from: “she just wants you to follow her. She left, but she wants you to go get her.”
“I get that,” was my line, “and any other day I’d understand.”
“Why don’t you get that today?”
“…because it’s my fucking birthday!”
That same friend told me that if this was a crossroads I had to make the choice now. I had 2 kids. I had a life. I had to choose to change all that or dive back in, headfirst, and be her husband. Birthday didn’t matter. Life doesn’t look at the day.
It still took me some time, but obviously things changed. At the end of the day, it was the same as when I asked Andrea to marry me – I couldn’t see living my life without her in it. As bad as some days were, there were far more good ones.
So last year . . . and now this . . . I look at the fact that I now have to live without her. Not only that, but this first shared day – my birthday – is a good thing. The other – my anniversary – I cannot come to terms with still. It’s a hard thing knowing your marriage began and ended on the very same day.
But it’s amazing knowing you gained an amazing part of your family on your birthday. That’s always been the best gift of all. So this year . . . I don’t know where I’ll be yet . . . but I can’t be here. I have to make good memories when my kids aren’t around so that I don’t dwell on the bad ones.
In my poor planning and idiotic reliance on a tax refund, I hadn’t realized that I’m only weeks away from the end of the school year. Less than a week and Abbi’s out, moving onto Senior year . . . just like that. Hannah will head to her final year of middle school. I let it slip by, ignored the dates, and my father hit me with the question he’d asked over and over again: “when do the kids get out of school?”
The girls were the first to visit their grandparents. It started the year we moved to Sacramento. My folks missed the kids horribly and wanted to spend time with them. When my folks wanted the time to get longer and longer it weighed heavier and heavier on my wife. She didn’t like being away from the kids. I think part of her really didn’t like my parents having any influence over her kids, which I believed then – and firmly believe now – was a foolish thing. My Mom is definitely a take-charge kind of woman and my Dad has his opinions. They might very well take over and run things if you let them . . . but that’s the key: if you let them.
The longest the kids ever stayed with my folks when Andrea was alive was a month. Andrea hated it. Even 2 weeks was too much for her. You have to understand as well that when we got to California she had a very unrealistic view that her Mom would take care of the kids while she worked . . . and I think she believed her Mom would take care of her when she got home. The hardest thing in the world is to grow up and see the weaknesses and flaws in your parents. To you, particularly in those most formative years, they are indestructible. Andrea always fought them but secretly wanted her Mom to take care of her. The worst thing in the world was when she realized, as an adult, that her Mom was neither willing nor able to do that work – not when she was a kid, and really not now when we had our kids.
Look, I know this sounds harsh and I’m not trying to be mean. Four kids . . . it’s a hard number to wrap your head around. I even told Andrea she had no expectation – nor no right – to try and make her Mom take care of bother her and the kids. I had raised a red flag saying that the agreement her Mom would watch our kids would never come to a good end. I had seen the reality by how many times Andrea had been disappointed in our marriage with too high expectations and I expressed my worries to both her and her parents. I was assured they were unfounded. In the end, they weren’t. It led to major bouts of depression and anxiety on my wife’s part. It also led to my having to try and calm down both Andrea AND her Mom on some days, something I was not equipped to handle.
Now, I’m faced with doing the very thing my wife hated: sending my kids away for the summer. My dilemma isn’t whether or not they can handle it, though I have that worry. It’s whether or not they’re bored or hurt by having to be there. That . . . and I’m not sure I can handle it.
I was in a fog when I got back to work last year. When I changed jobs (by necessity, not choice) I probably should have taken even more time off. When July came last year, I took a pilgrimage over 1 weekend . . . on my birthday . . . to avoid being here. Now I hit my 2nd summer and I’m not sure what I’ll do alone in the house.
I know I could go to Nebraska and visit the kids, and I will, but it’s not the whole summer. I could surely work my behind off, hang out downtown, do a bunch of things, but it’s not changing the fact that I’m faced with the fact that I have 2 and a half months where I’m left to face the fact that my house is empty. It’s like looking at my future and realizing that it’s where I’m heading in the next 9 years. I don’t know what I’m going to do from here. I love my job, but do I love it here in California enough to stay after the kids leave? Will I continue to be an investigative journalist?
I know it’s not easy to face these questions, and I shouldn’t. But I’ve come to realize that I’m only just now, in this last few weeks, looking more than a day ahead. I got through last year, last summer, all of it by looking only at each day . . . trudging through the morning, the afternoon, getting through to the night, and then starting it all over again. It became routine. But the routine isn’t effective when it’s having to change constantly. I will have 5 more years with Hannah and then it’s me and the boys. After that, what?
It’s hardest because, the weeks that the kids would spend in Nebraska I always wanted to take advantage of. I wanted to grab Andrea and head to LA or to London or anywhere . . . I wanted to find some of that spark again, the thing that had us so amazed with each other, unable to stop holding hands or kissing in public, damn the stares. But she wouldn’t do it. She was obsessed with the fact the kids weren’t here, wouldn’t travel, and counted the days until they were back.
I now face those summer days alone. I don’t have a choice. I can’t work if they’re home alone and it’s not fair to my oldest to keep them home and make her watch them . . . that, and I’m not sure she’d do it right. It’s easy to be coddling and attentive when you’re babysitting. It’s easier to ignore the arguments and head to your room when it’s your siblings. To survive and pay for everything these kids need I have to work and keep them watched and cared for. My parents volunteer to do it. I also love the influence they have and the feeling that my childhood home, to these kids . . . is home.
It’s the one thing that gets me through the summer. Where they are far away, they are so happy and cared for. I’m happy they have such an amazing summer ahead of them.
I’ve had a number of conversations with people lately that I guess shouldn’t surprise me, but then I guess I’m also not someone who looks at the world in the same way as others. It’s not like this weekend helped my demeanor much, either.
Stress isn’t something that I thrive on, but it usually takes an inordinate amount to make me change in personality. This weekend was one of those times. My wife, Andrea, used to say I was the person you wanted in that situation. She was always a bit flabbergasted by the fact that I hadn’t gone into some sort of medical field. My father and brother, after all, are pharmacists. “You’d have been a great ER doctor,” was her line. “You just never get flustered under pressure.”
The scenarios changed, of course. The guy who takes over the platoon when his sergeant gets killed in the war. The guy in the alien invasion who knows how to get out of a situation when we’re being attacked.
But let’s be honest, I never really agreed. It’s not that I’m good at these things, it’s that she’d seen me succeed in a few high-pressure situations and was impressed. It’s that she didn’t handle the pressure well and was floored I wasn’t falling apart when she was. But Andrea had a tendency to see the problems and, rather than attacking the problem at one point and moving forward, saw the vastness of the problem and just shut down. I tended to hear my Mother’s voice in the back of my head saying “start in the corner and work your way out.” Panic never succeeds in doing anything but creating more panic.
So when I get approached by people and told “I don’t know how you do it, that’s so amazing” when they hear about my caring for four children, I am a bit short. It might be because I’m so overwhelmed by the fact that I’m acting as two parents. Most likely, though, is the fact that the expectations of me were so low that they’re surprised I’ve done more than that. It’s an amazing thing to see the tendencies of some people to think there’s little or no way any guy could care for a kid on his own, let alone four of them.
My response to them in general is “what did you expect?” And what did they? They’re my kids, I don’t want them to fail, I want them to do better than I did, and at this point, that shouldn’t be too hard! These four kids need someone who will watch over them, care for them, be an example for them. I’m not sure I’m the best one, but I’m not going to ignore them or fall apart and just let them lie by the side of life’s road like a cup of pop I’ve tossed from the car. I didn’t act that way when my wife was still here. Why would I act that way now?
Noah faced his suspension on Friday thinking things were going to be business as usual. Unfortunately, we found out his sister’s wisdom teeth had been bone impacted, were putting pressure on the other teeth (that cost me an arm and a leg to get braces) and were pushing them askew. They had to be removed, and it was so bad now, they had to be removed quickly. So Noah sat in a dentist’s office and read books. When we got home, his sister loopy from the anesthesia, he sat on the couch and read. When his siblings got home from school, he sat in the office and read books while they played video games and went outside. This was supposed to teach him a lesson. Not sure if it did.
That night, Friday, Abbi couldn’t lie down without it hurting. I told her I’d stay on the couch with her that night.
“You don’t have to,” she said, but I could hear the apprehension in her voice.”
“I know I don’t have to, I said I would,” was my response.
That’s part of the key – the example I’m hoping to give. I don’t have to stay on the couch, hurt my back, get a new cluster of headaches from the lack of sleep. But I said I would. My father’s line: you’re only as good as your word. It’s true. The next night, she wasn’t much better and I did the same thing.
I got a comment saying “you’re the best Dad” when I mentioned she couldn’t sleep and I stayed there with her.
But I’m not.
This weekend I had to take care of Abbi, there was no choice. She spends so much time taking care of her siblings that I wanted to make sure she was taken care of. But the attention that they normally get – deserved or not – led to much more mayhem. Where “the best Dad” would have juggled it, I lost it. When Noah – who faced a suspension from school – decided to refuse his brother the ability to watch him play a video game on his little Nintendo Game Boy. Noah had watched Sam play all morning the day before, now he was being persnickety. I mentioned this and that he should let his brother watch so he closed the game boy and acted like he wouldn’t play. I told him to stop and he opened it just enough so he could peek in a play but no more.
I rarely get angry to the point that I punish in anger. Saturday I did it. I ripped the game boy out of his hands. When I told him this was the behavior – the attitude – that got him suspended, he gave me that look . . . the disdainful, “I know better and you cant’ get through to me” look and rolled his eyes at me. He lost the game but nothing was getting through to him and I am bowled away that nothing is.
My wife was always mortified when the kids had behavior problems, partially because she thought they reflected poorly on us. I’m hurt by them because it shows a fundamental failure of some sort, something that I couldn’t accomplish. It’s not because they lost their mother, they have other reasons. We’ve moved beyond the loss of their Mom. It’s been a year. They miss her – hell, I miss her – but I have to live in the world. She gets to be forever young, forever beautiful, forever brilliant and fun because that’s what we have in our hearts. We push the bad portions down and celebrate the good. But she gets to live on with us as a greater version of herself.
I, however, get to see the limitations of my skills and the dysfunction in my parenting when my kids misbehave to such a massive degree. Sure, at a certain point, they’re 9-years-old or 12 or 17. But sometimes, just when you think you can breathe, they can’t control their temper; they can’t stop acting like they deserve more; they do something so above and beyond what’s acceptable you cannot believe it.
Those are the times I look at them and realize it’s not their limitations, it’s mine. I’m not brilliant or great or even mediocre. I’m not the man my wife or people around me think I am . . . Many times I’m not even the man I should be.
This wasn’t an easy weekend. Not by a long shot. We had the twins’ birthday, which isn’t a particularly easy event to begin with. I knew they wanted a big party or something to do with all their friends. They only asked once or twice for it, but they didn’t keep asking. I mean, I realize that the majority of it is the anticipation of getting presents and the cake and the ice-cream. Hell, the fact that I limit the sugar and preservative intake that the boys get is reason enough to believe that they actually eagerly anticipate the cake and ice-cream for sure. But they had gotten used to their lives before they lost their Mom. I know that last year’s birthday was an anomaly. They were just so happy that they got a birthday at all, along with the fact that they’d gotten it with both sets of grandparents and their sisters I think they were surprised we even pulled it off. It wasn’t even 3 weeks after they’d lost their Mom.
This year was better, sure. It wasn’t facing the spectre of their Mom’s loss like last year. But remove the veil of grief that shrouded everything in those first few months and the expectation still stands, much like it was before. Their Mom always wanted to ensure that they had an amazing birthday and holiday. Often it came at the expense of many other things, including some overdue bills, but that never stopped their Mom from telling them that they’d have the party, renting out the laser tag place or miniature golf, and being the hero of their birthday. We overdid it on presents. We bought a pre-made bakery cake.
This year I could see the effect that our lives has had on those boys this week. The boys both wanted bigger presents but neither of them asked for them. Not a one. In fact, both asked simply for new books they can read – ones that would interest them – and some small Lego sets that would build a car and spaceship, pieces that only cost a few dollars each. That’s all they asked for. It was fortunate as we only had a little to our name this week. It’s been particularly heavy on our finances so far. I am due a tax refund and I was waiting for that check, one the IRS website had said was coming in the next 72 hours. Unfortunately, they changed their minds and decided that it would be ten days after the boys’ birthday that it arrived.
My sister-in-law in her kindness held the party at her house. I did make their cake, decorated with some letters and stars and made from scratch. It wasn’t that I minded, I liked it quite a bit. Baking has never been difficult or arduous for me. I don’t mind it, it’s just finding the time that’s the biggest problem. That and the money. I managed to get a handful of new books, including one Muppet book Noah’d been dying for and a 39 Clues book that Sam had been begging for. I also managed a great book by Neil Gaiman for Sam and one called “Al Capone Cleans my Shirts” for Noah. Andrea’s family acted as it was no problem at all that they took on the party but I do know better. I’m sure they were happy to do it, but I’m also sure that it was a bit of a burden, one that I feel awful I was unable to carry and not smart enough to fix our finances so I had saved enough to get it going. Awful enough that I gave them cards promising a bigger present – something they’d wanted but wouldn’t ask for – when the refund check came in the mail. They said they weren’t expecting it, but they were thrilled.
But like their Mother, I did what she would have done. I spent what I had on their birthday, figuring we’d sort the rest out as necessary. I filled up the car best I could. I bought a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk. I had meats and meals planned for the week. I had the staples. I take the train into work and have a monthly pass. I bought the four books, the legos, and made the cake. I figured if things got any tighter I had a guitar we could sell to make ends meet. In fact, I’d planned it all along. The boys had some gift cards and cash from their birthdays. I had no desire and too much pride to ask them for any of that. I figured I need only get to Friday, payday, before things would get better. I needed only a few things to get through the next days. My biggest worry was gas for Abbi and myself and getting through the rest of the week for other unexpected expenses. I figured I’d get a few hundred at best for the guitar by Monday or Tuesday and all would go well by that point.
The boys begged me to take them to Target, where they had gift cards and the expectation that they’d be able to buy the Legos and other things they wanted. Before we went I told the boys to get the mail from yesterday, which we’d forgotten. I hadn’t thought too much about what we needed to do the rest of the day, just always weighed down by the finances. Rarely did I go to bed and not talk to my wife, which may sound strange, but the reality is that she and I talked all the time. To not have that conversation after a certain point in the evening just, even today, feels . . . wrong. Empty. It’s not that I just want company, it’s that I don’t have her company.
When the mail came into the house, spilling out of Sam’s hands as he brought it in, there was the typical junk mail, a couple cards for the boys’ birthdays, and a letter I didn’t quite understand. It was a legal envelope, saying there was a settlement inside, but I was fairly certain it had to be one of those massive number of junk mail pieces, lots of junk, one of dozens I get every week. But opening the envelope, inside was a check, a class action settlement. No, it’s no massive change in financial status, but it’s enough money – just enough – to get us through the week. I don’t always believe in all those stories people tell of loved ones watching. I have relatives of Andrea’s, her friends, hell even random acquaintances that she didn’t particularly like telling me that they’ve seen her spirit or she came to them in a dream or that in a moment of need she brought help or hope. I have been a year in and I have to say, it’s not something I’d experienced. In fact, the reality that others either believed it to be so or the mere fact that she’d helped others when we’ve struggled to get by without her actually weighed on me, even angered me.
But this . . . this was just a fix that I was never expecting. I honestly Never would have believed that this could have been coming. I get it, this is a possibly random set of circumstances. A lawsuit in the works for years, probably. The settlement really amounting to chump change to most people and that’s about it. Others got this on the same day, I’m sure, and it’s no big deal to them. A happy chance. But for us, this was cause to celebrate. I bought groceries. I filled up the car. I felt like someone was looking out for us.
I worry about making the claim my wife, Andrea, is responsible. The settlement is partly from her decisions and life as well, so she is in reality. But do I sit here and believe she’s dropped everything and saved us from the edge? I’m not sure. It’s the kind of thing she was good at, helping find a miracle at the last minute. But this . . . I would love to hope she had a hand in on it. I can breathe again, just for the few days. I can pay to live the rest of the week, until I get paid, social security checks come, the tax refund, all of it. I can get caught up.
But she’s not here. Not every day, maybe not at all. I don’t know. I still talk to her, sure, but I’m never certain there’s a receiver of that conversation. Most nights I feel like the words strike the air and blow away. I think they very well may.
One thing, though, that I know for sure. We are looking out for each other. Two years ago my sons would have asked for the world on a platter forged from pure silver. Today, they wouldn’t even ask for what they truly wanted. They wanted only to open something. The fact I promised them that big present isn’t what made them smile and go to be with a delightful exhaustion. It’s that they had a good birthday and I was there, along with their sisters. In the end, be it divine intervention or pure, unadulterated dumb luck, we still managed to get by.
We’re looking out for each other. We’re far better together than we ever are apart.
This week has been more than the juggle I normally have. I stress about the boys’ birthdays. Everyone around them has had parties, rented out the Laser Tag place, bought fancy decorated cupcakes, whole nine yards. It’s not the other parents’ faults, they want to give great parties and presents to their kids. I understand that, I’d love to as well. But the reality is that I can’t. I just don’t have the stamina and – most importantly – the money.
The difficulty here is that I don’t just juggle work and home, let’s clarify that. I juggle our finances on a regular basis. I make a decent living, particularly in the industry in which I work. The problem is we were always a 2-income family. That never changed. So I rely heavily now on the social security that the kids get from their Mom’s years of working in the U.S. My oldest, already stressed and freaking out about college has asked how much of her SS money has been put into savings. The result is my incredulous look at her wondering how she thinks I’ve been able to save it.
Which brings yet another ball into the ring. I have to worry about feeding them, clothing them, paying tuition for the 3 little ones, shoes, and food. That on top of the rent, the phone bill, the internet, power, gas . . . all things in which they partake. None of that is chump change. As a result, we are tight, burning through all the checks right up until that last moment and starting it all over again. Christmas was easy because I cashed in all my stock options and retirement from my previous job. I had to, we needed a car and the leftovers went to paying for presents. This last week I had to help the Easter Bunny, which cost for candy and other things. No giant presents or anything, but it’s still money. I was so proud of myself for getting to Easter I had totally misjudged the end of the week being the boys’ birthday. The juggle for that was supposed to be my tax return, which the IRS said was coming three days ago. Then they changed their minds. Now it’s 10 days from the boys’ birthday. Surprise!
I don’t want to sound like I’m whining about finances all the time, I’m not. I love the fact that we’re even now, not constantly in the hole and in the red. Sure, I’ve got a bunch of red ink, but more black than red. The kids were used to a far nicer lifestyle with two incomes, but they’ve adjusted well to what we have now. The boys simply wanted some leggo kits and new books to read. They gave up asking for the new Nintendo 3DS, which made me want to give it to them all the more. Not to ease their “grief” like some critics might claim, but because they don’t ask for it and I know full well they want it. For a 8/9-year-old to have that kind of control and love their father enough to hold back and sit there asking for things they still want but not desire is pretty amazing. That’s what makes me want to help them get it.
But added to that mess is the commuting an hour North to go another 45 minutes South, every day, in order to get the kids watched for Spring Break. More gasoline. More miles on the new-ish car. Less time to shop for presents.
Last year I cannot tell you much about. The boys’ birthday was just a few short weeks after they lost their Mom. I got what I could and they seemed happy and I was just thrilled we’d gotten through the day without falling apart. Much love to my parents who helped it happen. I think I may have gotten a cake from Costco or some other place. I can’t do that this year, so I have to make their cake tonight. I like baking, don’t get me wrong, and I want to do it, but time isn’t something I have in abundance. Nor is cash.
Added to that? The daily crises that seem to help crumble the earth beneath me. The fact that my middle child, a 12-year-old girl, is just hitting her pubescent run and I have to be the one to deal with it. Her older sister is there, sure, but these aren’t things Andrea was happy to deal with in the first place, so Abbi was getting the advice from her Mom when she asked for it but it wasn’t given without interrogative. Now I have a daughter who asks if I’m going to the store because she’s out of Maxi pads and needs one . . . like now. I’m not a skittish Dad. I bought them and tampons and other various and sundry female items for my wife and oldest daughter’s menstrual needs. Now I’m doing it for my next daughter. The problem is she needs to understand how to be hygenic. I love her to death, but I’m also – and I’m sorry for the visual here – sick and tired of constantly cleaning drops of blood off the toilet seat, the underside of the seat and the inside of the rim. I’m tired of having to wash out my bathroom garbage can because she didn’t put a liner in and then stuffed it full of used aforementioned pads.
I’m a Dad. I course with testosterone. I don’t ooze delicate sensibility, I’m the male authority figure. At least that’s what it’s supposed to be. Now I’m telling my daughter how to handle the maxi pads, how to clean up, how to handle herself as a girl. I barely can be a normal guy most the time and now I’m supposed to handle the monthly cycles along with what looks good, what haircuts she should have and how to deal with sex with boys and how to handle it when her guy best friends will start looking at her as more a girl than a buddy. I wasn’t any good at this when I was a teenage boy, now I worry I’m setting them both up to fail. Fail, because they don’t have their Mom here to help them through it.
That’s the thing, too. It’s not that they don’t have a Mom, it’s that they don’t have their Mom. That’s a big difference. Their aunt, their Grandma, their Mom’s best friend . . . none of that is comfortable, I don’t pretend it would be. The most comfortable person they have to deal with these things is their Dad – me. I can see and hear it from them that they aren’t sure if it’s going to help either, but I can see when they get to the point they need someone they come to me. I should be happy that they are willing to talk to me about them. It’s a blessing that they are. But each new teenage problem, the wasteland of hormones and peer pressure in which they live, is one I have to figure out on my own because I wasn’t very good at it the first time through.
I stare at them all now and hope I get it right. I pray I have enough to get the presents the boys deserve for their birthday. The ground is shaky, to the point some days it nearly brings us to our knees. I just hope the tools I’m giving them are the right tools for what they need.
My daughter and I separately watched movies that brought us down in the last week. Hers was Phantom of the Opera, which I could have easily told her wasn’t going to end well for the hopeless romantic she is. (Broadway lovers out there, please for the love of God don’t email telling me how “Phantom” truly is hopelessly romantic. I get it. But my daughter is the happy-ending kind of hopeless romantic. For Phantom, that ain’t it. Sorry.) Mine was something I probably should have left well enough alone because I knew it was going to hit me hard.
I should also point out that, while I think from the looks of the ads and the trailers that the movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is superbly acted and brilliantly accurate in how a kid may deal with losing a parent, I just couldn’t bring myself to watch it. I still believe there’s likely no way I’ll ever watch the movie because I know the parent’s going to die and I know the kids will be upset and I just don’t want to watch that. I’ve already lived it.
No, my piece was a BBC production (no, I’m not a TV snob, I just wanted to watch it.) called “Single Father.” To be honest, I’d actually wanted to watch long before I lost my wife, it had come out in 2010 and run in England only. I had seen all kinds of articles and reviews on it, how it was brilliantly written by someone who hadn’t suffered loss but seemed to get it right. How it was acted so well that the acting made up for inadequacies in the story and the writing. I wanted to see it for all the talk it was getting. When I found the DVD on a website eons ago I decided to buy it. I was depressed, sad, and hurt from loss and thought there was nothing better than to force myself to wallow in it, alone, without the kids so they didn’t see me doing it. To get it all out so that I could avoid welling up and feeling the waves of grief and depression at the most random times during the day.
But like all things from other countries, they have to get shipped from their respective countries. Mine obviously came from England. As a result, it took a long time to get here and when I got it I wasn’t sure I should watch it.
But I’m nothing if not a glutton for punishment and I’ve never been accused of being very smart. I turned on the movie, whose lead character happened to be a former Doctor Who – David Tennant. I wasn’t sure how I’d react to a sci-fi star as this major character, but he was brilliant. Which brings me to the brutality. The main character, Tennant’s character, is named David. Dave. Didn’t make things easier for me. Dave’s wife dies in a brutal car accident where a cop car hits her on her bicycle. Cop’s fault, she dies immediately, and says “I love you” right before the end. The story leaves my parallels there, as it’s not a hospital scene and Dave falls in love with his wife’s best friend just a couple months after losing her. Guess I’m lucky Andrea’s best friends weren’t nearby my house, might have been all kinds of crazy confused salacious activities going on around me! I think it’s the lack of parallels that helped me to watch it.
But the one thing that the writer put into Tennant’s mouth, the adjective I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of and used before he cries in a moment of grief, breaking down, tears, messed up. “It’s just brutal” he says. “It’s brutal doing this without her!”
Brutal is a perfect adjective. Yes, I had to perform the activities of daily life long before my wife passed away, but doing them alone along with everything else is just that: brutal. Easter was this last weekend, and I was so proud of myself that I’d gotten everything done for Easter that I hadn’t realized how quickly my sons’ birthday was approaching. That’s this Saturday. The tax refund they said was coming in 7 business days is now coming on the 24th – ten days after their birthday – making my financial situation precarious. The boys’ friends all had big parties that had all the classmates attend. I can’t do that, I don’t know how I’m going to get them presents, if I’m being honest. I’m making the cake (which I can do, other than Freeport Bakery, I can outdo Costco any day!) and the frosting from scratch. I’m hoping to get the family, aunt, uncle, grandparents, cousins in the park near our house so they can play. My middle daughter wants to get them a present and I am counting the change in my pocket. Added to that is the fact that I had no babysitter on Thursday so I have hired a kid down the street who my oldest daughter is friends with. I have to pay her as well. I watch the numbers to the left of my bank account’s balance reduce by a digit with each expenditure and I’m feeling the brutality again.
So brutal is a perfect adjective. No, I’m no longer trying to figure out whether or not I can pay the house payment or anything, but since the rent has come out and the payment for other bills, and the tuition the school gets along with the Extended Day costs for them being at school past the school day, I’m in a world of hurt. The tax refund would make me even again but I have to wait. I can’t tell the boys “you’ll get your presents in ten days”. So I do the financial juggle. I lean with my head on the kitchen table frustrated. I think about what I can get them with what I have and how to stretch what I already have for dinners and everything in the house.
These are the things that I face alone. It’s painful to miss my wife, but it’s also brutal that I have to face these things alone, no second brain helping to push ideas for birthday. No supportive hands on my back to calm me when I feel overwhelmed. Sure, people say “she’s up there watching and helping you” but up there doesn’t help or comfort me. It really doesn’t. It actually tells me she’s happy and calm and peaceful and I’m left to pick up the pieces and it’s . . . yeah, I’ll use the adjective again . . . it’s brutal. It really is.
Unlike the character in the movie, I knew I had to do it. There was no choice, they all need me to be their Dad and not break down and lose it. It’s very different for my kids who now miss their Mom and simply miss them. They feel loss, they worry about abandonment, but they didn’t have the mental and emotional backing that I had from her. Sure, they had their Mom’s emotional and physical help, but they’re kids. They also fought that backing. I, on the other hand, wish it wasn’t gone.
Birthdays aren’t brutal. It’s the buildup and daily life that’s brutal. It was brutal before she left, but with nobody to help take some of the blows now, all I can do is reflect at the end of the day and take a deep breath and prepare myself for tomorrow.
It’s still one day at a time, and though it’s brutal, I continue to take the beating. I don’t really have any other choice.