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The First Biggest Event

On Our Concert Weeend

Without You by Manoucheri from the LP The Blind Leading the Blind

The first year was a year of firsts.  After Andrea, my beautiful, amazing wife passed away, every typical family holiday and event was a difficult first. The first hour without her; the first day; first week, month . . . Then came the holidays.  We had birthdays.  Every single thing that was normally taken for granted was something that we braced for and then endured.

But none of those days or events were the sort of monumental, milestone memories that you have.  I mean, sure, every birthday is memorable.  You take photos, videotape them, all the things made even easier by the use of cameras on our cell phones.  I haven’t forgotten or ignored those events, I have videos and photos of all of them.  I’ve written and shared them here – as much a diary of our days since losing her as they are a healing and helping exercise.

But this weekend was the kind of eventful and memorable set of days that mark a milestone in any life, not just in the lives of those who have lost, like we have.  It started with just me and my oldest daughter.

Abbi’s life began with music.  When Andrea got pregnant with her I was still a performing musician.  I ran a jam session every week with two great friends in a trio.  Andrea, with Abbi in the womb, would come to the bar and watch us play.  She didn’t drink, no smoking in the area she was in, she would just come and hear us play.  Early in Abbi’s life we went to all kinds of concerts.  At the age of 2 she was a a massive blues festival with Neville Brothers and BB King.  At the age of 4 she pleaded to see the Brian Setzer Orchestra live.  At five we saw BB King and Abbi met him backstage.  He called her “princess” and gave her the pin on his lapel.

So I took Abbi to Oakland’s Oracle Coliseum to see the Black Keys play on Saturday.  While I started my own Twitter hashtag stating #2manyhipsters throughout the evening, I was happy to be having a night out with my daughter.  We watched the show, and my daughter nearly gagged on the horrific smell of some idiot hipster’s own blend of weed there in the coliseum.  We watched the show and then made our way into San Francisco so that we could spend the night at Fisherman’s Wharf in a really nice hotel in the refurbished Del Monte cannery.  The hotel was a four-star place, and though I’ve stayed at these kinds of places before, I hadn’t stopped to think about the fact that Abbi, and even the other three kids, haven’t stayed at a fancy place before, not to this extent, and not while they were old enough to remember.

Abbi felt rich.  She felt taken care of.  I spent far more money than I should have but we had an enjoyable night and we slept well.  The next morning we ate outside and then had ice cream as we walked along the wharf and then on the beach.  I hadn’t realized when I booked the night that it would be a great night, something she’d always remember.  It was the start to an eventful day for her.

As we got back home, I’d set up with a family friend to get her hair done.  I helped her to call the cosmetics place and they did her makeup for her.  After I’d picked up the kids from their Aunt’s house, I took them home and Abbi got home.  She wanted to get into the dress we’d worked so hard to buy, tailor, and frustratingly deal with that we didn’t even really have time to realize what had come.  We’d reached the night of her Junior Prom.  Here it was, that first, biggest event.  It’s not like I’m that kind of sentimental, Hallmark card kind of guy.  But this isnt’ a birthday or a silly little Fourth of July picnic or something.  This is one of the milestones that Moms usually judge their kids by.  In a moment of panic we looked for fashion tape to try and attach the dress to her upper chest so that it wouldn’t fall and we realized that in the move the same said tape had disappeared somehow.  After an unsuccessful trip to Target we sat there trying to figure out what to do.  Abbi thought about Scotch tape when I realized that we had larger band-aids in the medicine cabinet.

I did surgery on the band-aids there on the kitchen table.  I cut the sticky, cloth-backed section off and left only the adhesive plastic bandage that was close enough to the color of her skin that it would apply.  We got the dress to stay, the shoes on her feet, and out the door about 15 minutes behind schedule.

Abbi and I on prom night…as she readied to head out

She looked gorgeous.

I wasn’t worried, the same girl who said she’d never get into drugs or weed or anything because – much like her Mom – the smell would gag her and kill her senses before the drugs did, was now the most amazingly gorgeous girl I had seen since her Mom.  She was happy, smiling, excited the dress fit . . . and she was grown up.  I didn’t ever think about where things went from here.  I didn’t know how we were going to get here.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it?  It was supposed to be “we” getting here.  Us.  I don’t have that.  The weekend was very hard for me on a couple fronts.  Without realizing it, I’d forgotten the fact that this weekend, on the wharf, was not much unlike the time I’d spent with Andrea here.  I was with my daughter but the ghost of my past kept haunting me.  The sand and the chill in the air reminded me that I’d pushed Andrea to walk on the beach, just because I wanted her to be a little chilled so she’d sidle up next to me and try to get warm.  The Ghiradelli plant there so that I’d buy chocolate that she’d refuse . . . and then take bites of what I’d bought.  The fancy hotel, something I’d splurged and spent all my money on to try and impress her only to realize that she didn’t care or notice the room.  We spent the entire time out on the sand and holding each other.

Now I watched my daughter drive off to the prom and realized that, even though I’m surrounded by people and family who wanted to see pictures and share in the event, it’s still just me.  I have reached the milestone that “we” were supposed to reach.  When I saw this day coming in the horrifically distant future years ago I saw it happening and being able to sit down with Andrea and talk about how we’d gotten here.  Now I talk and it’s a monologue, not a conversation.  I know this is supposed to be hard.  It’s not supposed to get easier watching your kids grow up and get lives of their own.

To take my mind off things I first took my other three kids to the movies, “Pirates!” by the Wallace and Gromit folks.  Then we all went to the Avengers today.  All in an attempt to keep this.

The things I hold dear and grip are the memories I’m getting just as much.  Sure, surrounded by annoying hipsters I wanted nothing more than to grab a razor and a shotgun and start threatening lethal grooming, but that was overshadowed by the fact that my little girl – that 5-year-old who was so enamored with the King of the Blues that night 12 years ago, still wanted to share this with me.

This is the first biggest event, though I hadn’t realized it until it had hit full force.  Now I wish I’d given it its due.

But I have the memories, and so does she . . . so do the other three.  That makes all the difference in the world.

A Question of Balance

It’s been stormy in my house.  No, it’s not the rain outside, though that was there, but the events of the last couple weeks have weighed on me and just beat me down.  I’m not hitting my stride and falling off balance.

I have been very big in talking about discipline and stating for the record that I have to have follow-through on my demands.  I don’t just say these things, I believe and try to practice them.  Like most normal parents, though, I understand that the frustration, patience and emotional steel needed to endure the punishments is more necessary from the parent than from the child.  My kids are particularly difficult examples.

Our home situation isn’t the only reason.  I’m not big on letting myself or the kids use the example of losing my wife, Andrea, as the reason for misbehavior or acting out.  Still, the fact remains that as hard as it is for me to care for four kids on my own I can only imagine what it must be to be one of those four children with one less parent.  Whatever faults Andrea may have had, she absolutely loved and adored our kids.  Sometimes it was to my detriment.  Andrea didn’t like disciplining them, in fact she was horrible at it until the last few years of her life.  I grew to be a bit resentful of her, this amazing and beautiful woman, because she’d get frustrated with their behavior, call me at work – where I could do absolutely NO good – and have me be the heavy.  When that didn’t work I had to mete out the punishments when I walked in the door.  The kids grew to flinch and dread my walking in the door.  I never thought it was fair that she was able to have fun and get frustrated yet I had to be the one to dole out those criticisms, usher them to the dinner table, get them showered and cleaned, then force bedtime while their Mom would say “can’t they stay up just a little?  We haven’t had more than an hour or two together as a family” and she becomes the white knight while I’m the black.

Let me reiterate – I hated that scenario.  I saw my children, whom I loved so much, avoiding spending time with me and literally asking “so, Dad, when do you go to work?”  Not as a question but a hope that they get rid of me for the rest of the day.  I finally had to have a talk with Andrea that it wasn’t healthy that she got to be so loved and they were starting to despise me.  Finally, she agreed and started taking the punishments into her hands and I got to come home without being the punisher.  I tucked them in, said prayers, and read to them, like every other night, and we started to finally hit our stride.

So when they lost their Mom I lost the balance all over again.  As a result, I have to look at punishments and what’s egregious and what’s simply worth letting slide.

With my middle daughter, Hannah, it’s hard.  The boys I can take away privileges, games, TV, etc., and they respond.  Noah has a harder time, but stay home all day and do nothing but read the books you have, not new ones or library books, and you get bored very fast and don’t want to visit that world again.  When he got suspended for a day after kicking another boy I wanted to make sure the punishment sunk in.  He loves being helpful, so when they suggested it be in-school kind of suspension it made no sense.  Noah likes to clean up and help the teachers and be the class’ helper.  I understand how it feels to be a bit of an outsider, the one who doesn’t fit the grain of the wood.  he’s the knot in the pine desk, not the smooth grain that tries to go around it.  So when he was suspended, he had to stay home and we scheduled his sister’s oral surgery so he’d have no attention, no help, no focus.  Just books and a couch cushion to sit on.  Not sure if it worked, but it’s all I can muster.

Hannah, to continue the point, doesn’t respond to it.  When she hadn’t done her chores and I took away the privileges she was good for about 3 days and then went back.  Take them away again and she could care less.  She gets up, puts away 2 plates, then slinks off upstairs to her room or hides in the office so I can’t see her.  As I’m doing laundry or making lunches I can’t tell if she’s doing her homework . . . until I get the reports showing she hasn’t turned it in again.  Her latest stint is because I took them out of school for the anniversary of Andrea’s death – at leas that’s her explanation.  In case you haven’t seen, we’re not past a month beyond that anniversary.  Even I would have a hard time justifying changing the grades back if we’re now a month beyond.  Hannah claims the assignments were changed while we were gone and didn’t know, which may be, but then she never tried to find out.  I gave her a deadline and told her the one thing she desperately wanted – to see the Black Keys in concert with her sister and I next Friday – was the goal.  No missed assignments; no zeros and she goes, spends the night with us, and then all is right with the world.

Last night was it.  I even – violating my own credo – gave her a 1-day extension.  She’s joined a school play, had a lot on her plate, and told her that she had to talk to the teacher today.  
“She scares me,” was the excuse.
“No she doesn’t, if she was mean she wouldn’t care and wouldn’t be working with you to fix this.  She’d just give you and “F”, which you very well might deserve!”
“But she scares me.”
“You’re not scared, you’re embarrassed and don’t want to admit to her or me you don’t want to face this.  Bigger issues, Hannah, you cannot fail 7th grade!”

That’s the deal we made.  Fix it, concert’s a go.  Not fix it you’re staying with your Aunt along with your brothers.  On top of that, if she fails 7th grade, she’s moving to the public school.  I informed her already that I won’t pay for the same grade twice.

Tonight after picking her and Sam up from play practice her mouth ran a million miles an hour.
I didn’t have time to talk with her and the class was busy and we didn’t have study time and the next bell had rung and I didn’t see her and I don’t know if she was still there and the whole thing was hard and there’s no possible way I could have talked with her during class and we had a quiz and . . . ”
“. . . I had to memorize my lines for the play.”

That’s  when I lost it.
“The play!!!  You should have blown off the play.  You should have been late for rehearsal.  You should have been late to your next class or stayed outside her classroom before going to rehearsal so you could fix this.  That was the deal.  The play isn’t what’s important, Hannah.  You need to see your priorities here!”

I knew what was coming next: “so I can’t go to the concert??”
“What do you think?!”

She started to get huffy on the car ride home.
“Don’t get mad at me, Hannah, I didn’t do this.  I gave you a day more than I should have!”
“I know,” was her answer, “I know.  I did this, it’s my fault.”

I reminded her that taking 3rd grade again probably wouldn’t have affected her, but if she fails 7th . . . she may not even get into college.  I stared at her with my mouth agape.

Her sister was depressed.  She was secretly happy she might get a night with her Dad – the night before the prom – but she also wanted Hannah to come.  They had this connection together and they could relate.  Like sisters, not like older sister caring for her siblings.

But nothing was getting through.  I had spoken with Hannah’s aunt and said “she’s got a hail Mary I’m allowing her today to try and fix it.”  My response when I got home was to text her saying “well . . . Hannah fumbled.”

I wanted this.  I wanted the night with my girls.  I wanted to see a show – maybe not my favorite, but who cares? – and eat dinner, go to the hotel, then come home and watch my little girl transform into a grown up for prom.  I wanted to see my little girls together again and then one of them had to ruin it.

The balance was broken again.  It’s so far off-kilter at this point I’m not sure I can bring it back, but this is the only way.  I cave in now nothing will ever sink in.

Like I said, punishment is often harder on the parents.

Leave the World a Bit Better…

Lonely Boy by The Black Keys from their LP El Camino

Those Damn Cookies I Had to Make!

I was in a mad dash scramble tonight from the moment I entered the door. It also came after a day when one interview cancelled and I was running around crazy, so my mood had not been particularly pleasant. I hadn’t even taken my coat off and standing above me, looking through the banister, was Sam hollering “can we go to the school’s International Passport night? We get a free dress pass tomorrow if we do!”

If I hadn’t needed to eliminate a load of wash for the evening I wouldn’t have even considered it. On top of scrambling to fry a bunch of burgers and cook fries for dinner, I had to head to the grocery store to get the ingredients for a recipe of Persian cookies that I’d volunteered to make for “International Meal” at Hannah’s class tomorrow. I stood there, wool P-coat still around my shoulders, looking into the kitchen, out the front door, and still hadn’t put my briefcase down from the work day. You know what happened next, I was doomed.

But the stress didn’t end. First, Hannah informs me that there are more than 30 kids in her class alone, therefore I have to make 3 dozen cookies. I’m running around realizing I don’t have hamburger buns. The kids are all shouting that they want to go because it starts at 6:30 and I haven’t even half finished with the dinner yet . . . and I suddenly realize the “lesson” I’ve been trying to teach Hannah about not doing her chores has backfired. Not only is there no room at the table, the entire kitchen is a mess. The more I clean the angrier I get, and I was already angry.

Little did I know that the dreaded and well-known Manoucheri curse was going to rear its ugly head soon.

We all went to the evening, running into parents I hadn’t seen and walking through the chaos of the gymnasium filled with maps, games, foods, all of it from around the world. It was a little bit of pride that took me when the kids had to put dots on where they were born and we had two separate states, neither of them California, and the people around looked like we’d just landed here in our shuttle craft from the Martian mother ship. (not the parent running the booth or the teachers, but there is a contingent and pervasive mentality that if you’re here in California why would you ever want to leave?) But seeing the map, the little dots on Keller/Ft. Worth, Texas and then Omaha, Nebraska, I didn’t just think about the fact they were born there, there’s a flash of memories that rush through your brain. You get overwhelmed with memories.

Noah is still processing the latest string of emotions that hit all of us, I think. He didn’t want to go to the International Night because he was worried he’d get lost in the mass of people and not be able to find me, a fear that he’s gotten in just the last couple months. A fear that I can only help him to face, but he’ll have to tackle it at some point and I can only help him get the tools, I can’t face it for him.
“Will you stay with me when we go to the tables?” he asked more pleading than anything else.
“Of course, Monkey, I’ll be right next to you. Don’t worry.”

It wasn’t painful, it was fairly easy and we saw friends who make us smile. I loaded everyone up, now hopped up on lemonade and sugar cookies and went to Safeway. I went in to get cookie ingredients and Noah got out and came along with me, leaving the other 3 kids in the car. He reached up, put his hand in mine, and quietly said “I love you, Daddy.”

It melted some of the stress.
“Love you too, Monkey. Very much.”

It was the drive home that was hard. Abbi nearly lost it. Yesterday I bought tickets to see the band “The Black Keys” during a presale for registered users of the band’s website, and since I’d gotten their latest album on presale for Abbi for her birthday they gave me a password to order tickets early. I’d gotten three, one for me and the girls, who love the band. On the way home, her friend had informed her, after her very short period of bliss, that the concert was on the same night as the Prom. The Prom which Santa had gotten a very expensive, very nice designer dress that was an insane amount of stress and difficulty for both me and the re-suited fat man!

“Maybe I’ll just skip the prom. Nobody’s going to ask me anyway, and I want to see the Black Keys!” was her response. I looked at her and had to say something.
“You know, I can’t say for certain that the Black Keys will be around in 20 years, but I can say that if you skip the prom, you’ll have to deal with that forever.”

Her response is one I’ve heard and told myself countless times. “I won’t get asked” or “I’m always second in everyone’s mind” or “I’m a good friend but they never think of me as a date” all things I don’t agree with, but what can I say? I was the same way. All I could say was how, even in my youth, when I was shy, quiet, lacking self-confidence, I asked a girl to the prom. I never took a date to Homecoming, Sweetheart, none of the other dances. I always went, but I never took a date. The Prom . . . prom was different.

You have to understand why this was such a big deal for me. I’ve recounted before how I couldn’t ask a girl out easily. I had paralyzing fear and shyness. I’d dial 6 numbers and never get to the 7th. I’d ask then panic wondering how I could have gotten myself into the situation. I think they were going out with me because they felt sorry for me. None of these things were true, at least I don’t think, but I thought them nonetheless. But I overcame that, just long enough, to ask a girl I had a crush on to the prom. I rented a tuxedo, talked with friends about what they were doing, and then asked, quite unsuccessfully, my father if I might drive the convertible to the dance. (I knew the answer, but hey, you gotta ask!) I may have been an outsider, so to speak, but even I asked a girl to the prom. Me, the geeky, lanky, shy boy. Abbi’s none of those things. She’s outgoing, happy, funny, and smart. One of the good things, I thought, of going to this public school was that she’d get to have a social life and interaction with boys, much as that bothers me as a Dad. She gets a taste of real life, to live her own John Hughes film.

The boys then asked the question that started the philosophical thinking in my head: “did you know mommy when you asked this girl to the dance, Daddy?” Of course, I didn’t. I lived in Nebraska, Andrea grew up in California, we were literally a world apart. I was in a small town she was in Sacramento, a large town trying to act small.
“What happened at that dance, Daddy?” I couldn’t lie. Sure, I got the courage to ask someone to the dance. Didn’t change that I was still shy, geeky, lanky, and not the most confident of people. Not the shining moment that I would have hoped, but I went. I asked someone, and good or bad memory (it’s not all bad, take it from me) I went.

Then they asked what I’d been thinking: “but Mommy didn’t have a bad time when she went out with you?”
“No, she saw something inside me, something I don’t know I even saw myself, kiddo.”
“So what did she do?”
“She was you Mom, guys. She showed me who I could be. She didn’t let me be shy. She was tall, beautiful, and funny.” Abbi looked my way and saw I’d noticed and she turned away. The boys asked . . . “so is that why you married her, Dad, and not that other girl?”

“I don’t know that marrying anyone else was ever on my mind, kiddo. I loved your Mom, and she loved me…all of me, she didn’t even see the things I worried about, she just blew past them and brought me up next to her. It’s like she’d known me all along, even if I didn’t know the person she saw, she let me be who I’d always wanted to be. She saw who I really was . . . even if I didn’t…”

I could feel my eyes welling up and I was glad it was dark.
” …and I miss her. I miss her a whole lot.”

When I got home the reminiscence didn’t stop. Abbi was still horrified at her luck of losing the concert to the prom. So I solved the problem. I got tickets to the show the night before, with the little I had saved for new pickups for my guitar. I told her to find kids who would want the Sacramento tickets, the presale for Oakland hadn’t ended and we got tickets for there instead.

“Mom always said that you were the best at solving problems,” Abbi told me. Andrea did used to say that. She thought I should have been an ER doctor, or some other high-stress job because she always thought I thrived on the problems and coming up with ways around them. She’d once said that if we’d had to fight on the battlefield that she knows I’d be more like the guy who took the reigns when the Colonel was killed and got his men out of harm’s way. I still feel like I’d reverted to being the kid who barely asked the girl to the Prom.

While I made the cookies for school the next day, running the dishwasher full of old dishes Hannah had neglected, I had the TV on to a random channel. On it, a person brought up a very old saying: “the main thing is to leave this world a little better than when you entered it.” It’s a saying I’ve heard before, one that I always liked, but it really made me think.

There’s the what-ifs . . . how many more amazing things could this beautiful woman have accomplished in her time? What more could I have expected from just being in her sphere of influence? I don’t lie when I say I am the man I am today because of her. Then I started to think about everything.

When we met, I was a technical guy. I did the occasional reporting, but more than anything I was a photographer, nothing more. Now, I’m an investigative journalist. I’ve won awards, I’ve met world leaders, I’ve seen amazing things. I would never have done any of it, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today, if not for the woman who never bothered to look at me as less than I was. She just saw . . . me. I so wish I could have seen what more she would have done, what she would have given the world. The Alzheimers drugs she’d helped research in school. The lives she might have saved catching drug interactions. The materials she might have written in some sort of drug research.

But in the end, she did leave the world better than when she found it. At least my world. I’m here, today, writing and solving the “Manoucheri curse” yet again because she showed me I could.

When I came up to start writing I checked my Facebook page and saw my daughter had posted a message:
“Who has the best Dad in the world?! I do!!!!”
Really, that’s all I needed. She’s more like her Mom than she ever realized.