Tag Archives: Christmas

Take a Breath, a Deep Breath Now . . .

Take a Breath (Live) by David Gilmour from “Live at Gdansk”

One of the new holiday events . . . part of our new story

People have a mistaken expectation of what the holidays will be like in my household this year. I am getting the typical, and honestly sincere thoughts and support from a great deal of friends and family. But I can’t tell them whether or not the holidays will be amazing or brutal because I just have no idea. There are days – well, let’s be honest, it’s more like moments – when things are brilliant. We bought our tree, we cut it down, made s’mores, put up the decorations, talked about what we wanted from Christmas, all the typical stuff you’d think about as a family during Christmas.

But then there are the moments that just make your heart feel like it’s being ripped out of your chest while it’s still beating. I found her stocking with the rest of them and didn’t know what to do about it. Half of our ornaments were pieces my in-laws wanted to rid themselves of and dropped off to us a number of years back, all of them Andrea’s.

There’s one that hurt more than anything, that I hadn’t anticipated or expected. I was just pulling out a simple, homemade ornament, one that was shaped like a star, and inside was Abbi’s picture. The picture itself was an event. Abbi was in this robin’s egg blue outfit with black velvet on the cuffs and collar. There was some sort of white furry material on her hat and she had the biggest, most amazing smile on her face for a child in that time between baby and toddler. She was sitting on a little red chair, and she couldn’t have been happier. The picture had been taped through the back of the star, the center of the ornament open so that the face of the picture showed through. The star itself was a little wooden thing, a red star with the shape accentuated by a white line that traced the shape of it’s pieces as well.

Pictures are hard. By their very nature they capture entire moments in a singular frame. In this particular case I remembered the fighting Abbi did with Andrea to get the outfit on, the complaints about doing her hair, the pouting face and her lip sticking out when her mother asked her to sit still while she put her bow in her hair. Then the girly-girl was so proud of all the compliments and gushing parents talking about her as we stood in line waiting to get the picture taken. It was another example of what was so right in our house when Andrea helped us put the holidays together.

But flipping it over was worse. On the back, Andrea had written “I love you, Dave, with all my heart. Andrea, 1996.”

You wouldn’t think that little line would have such impact, but it does. It swirls around your head. You know how ridiculous you feel seeing the small line and the emotions that well up in your chest. You wonder how you’re going to do this without letting the kids see you starting to fall apart and stopping the whole process. It’s like little pieces of her ghost float there on the tree.

I had to debate the stockings . . . do I leave hers up? If I do, will the kids then wonder why Santa didn’t put anything in it, or do they get confused if he does? The decorations from last year that are so beautiful you put them up but so many memories of her that you are surrounded, again, by her?

But the presents go under the tree, and you smile about the stuff you’ve managed to get hoping your present is perfect. Your kids worry you don’t have anything and feel for you. There are just as many moments sitting there that make you smile as ones that make you sad.

I can’t tell people what this holiday will be like because I really don’t have any idea. Nor do they. I mean, sure, lots of people have lost a loved one, or been widowed (widowed? widowered? Whatever . . . ) but I can’t take their experience and make it my expectation. It won’t be the same because I’m not them. This could be the hardest, worst day of the year. It could also be one of the most amazing. I just don’t and won’t know until midnight strikes on Dec. 25th. That’s when the indicators will hit.

So when it’s time to put together pieces that say “some assembly required” knowing full well that only a Chinese engineer with tiny hands and a tenuous grasp of the English language could construct I’ll continue my own, singular tradition that I started years ago, in another state, when I had a perfect life and I had my best friend, my love, and my four kids near me, but all sleeping.

That night, while the kids lay all asnooze in their beds, Andrea gave in to exhaustion and fell asleep on the couch. I was busy bandaging a cut from the screwdriver that had stripped a cruddy Chinese-made screw on a present and I did what most parents would never do.

I took a breath. A deep breath.

Andrea was so beautiful. Even then, I looked at her and was amazed at the woman who moments ago had annoyed me with her obsessive control of how I placed the presents because it had to be placed just-so. I stood back, while she laid there in flannel pajamas with coffee cups all over them and it all melted away. I looked at Abbi, Hannah, Noah and Sam, too, and realized that I was fortunate. One of my favorite movies, “The Apartment” with Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine (before she went crazy and started realizing she was Joan of Arc in another lifetime), was on the TV. I should have finished right there and went to bed. Instead, I moved over, put Andrea’s head on my lap, and watched the rest of the movie. I knew it probably only be 3 hours before the kids snuck out of bed and looked at their presents, but what the hell. It’s Christmas.

So this year, I’ll take a breath. For the first time since Abbi was my only child, I’ve got the shopping done, the presents wrapped and the thoughts to Santa for his Midnight gift run. It won’t be the same, not this year, but how could it be? This is the new story, the next chapter in the Manoucheri household. None of us wanted it, but fighting it won’t do any good. It won’t be easy, but I also know there’s a lot to reflect on that’s good. We have a roof over our heads. I have an amazing job, one that I shouldn’t have been able to get. I have four amazing little children who make life wonderful. I was fortunate to come into a little money and make Chirstmas a little better. Like everything in our lives, it’d be perfect if she was just here. But she’s not, and we have to come to terms with the fact that we’ve done OK without her, which none of us wants to do. But we do it, or the lines on the page become stilted.

So Saturday night I’ll have some hot chocolate, turn on my AppleTV and watch “The Apartment” and wish I had my own version of Miss Kubelik next to me . . . and I’ll take a breath.

A deep breath now.

Baby, you can drive my car . . .

Chevrolet by Robben Ford and the Blue Line

You wouldn’t think buying a car would be that big of a deal. Well . . . yes, I get that it’s a big deal, a lengthy, awful, negotiative process that involves selling a portion of your soul in order to simply get a vehicle that you feel isn’t betraying your masculinity for gas mileage and killing your financially. But I’m not talking about the typical nightmare that is automotive purchasing.

It’s another one of those things that I have to do, but don’t want to do. Not because of the hassle, cost or confusion, though there is that. But it’s another big choice, another massive decision that further adds proof that my life is drastically and forever changed.

I know, I know, get over it, it’s only a car. …except it’s not.

If you are a family of any size larger than a threesome, you’re nodding your head as you read this. You can’t survive in a Honda Civic. Not even a Chevy Blazer. We live in the car. It’s where we pick up the kids; where the Christmas music plays as we look at Christmas lights; where we lay down my son when he fell out of a bounce house and has to go to the ER, both of us looking like we’ve walked out of tear gas in Beirut, with our shirts full of blood; where we saw movies at the drive-in theater as a treat so they can see how we saw movies as kids in the . . . well a few years ago.

It’s the vehicle I drove at 90mph to the hospital when Andrea started to take a turn for the worse.

Every car we’ve owned since I married her in 1993 has been a joint decision – and by that I mean she had an idea of what she wanted and I had to act like I argued and had an idea but in the end really agreed with her anyway. When our first was born we bought a Nissan Altima, a mid-sized car, the first year it was made, because we needed something more reliable. We’d had Hannah, so we needed something bigger, moving onto a Blazer. When we moved to Texas in that car, we realized that we needed room for soccer games, carpools, birthday parties . . . so we got the car we affectionately call the “sexy Sheboigan”.

Andrea picked her out. I’d actually never thought about something that big, that gas guzzling, that . . . perfect. Like so many other decisions we made together, she’d done all the research, talked about the ups and downs, tried out other versions of the car, even looked through pictures and comparison shopped. She went to the library and read old copies of Consumer Reports, just to check it all out.

Now, after more than a decade of having her, she has 205,000 miles. We lived in her. It sounds crazy, I know, but even the kids see it. Right there, driving down the road, it was the usual situation – Me driving, Andrea sitting there, in the passenger seat, smiling, riding along. The kids remember it the other way – them riding in the back, Andrea driving. Even now, I put my hand on that middle console and if I’m not paying attention I wait for her hand to set on top of mine. It’s a small, but definite pang that hits when I realize that it’s not coming, there’s no touch.

So December comes, after repairing the A/C, the transmission, the differential, the radiator, the bumper, the water pump and the catalytic converter. It’s so tempting to hold onto this miracle of modern-day machinery, but it’s not practical or realistic anymore.

And there it is, reality creeping into the damn picture again.

It’s not as big a change, not like moving into the new house or changing jobs or switching schools – all of which we’ve had to do this year. But I still have to make a choice and it’s obvious I’m doing it alone. Where Andrea just . . . knew, I knew we needed to buy something, just didn’t know what. Sure, I looked around, comparison shopped, hit Edmunds, Kelley, all the consumer sites. I checked reliability, value, depreciation, all of that, but I really did feel like I was blindly waving my arms around in the dark.

Sure, Abbi helped. She’s an amazing kid, and when I went back to the same mfg. I already had, not a Chevy like before, she was fine with it.

But I went in, hoping just to look at the car, and walked out last night with the keys in-hand. On the drive home it dawned on me that I’d made the decision and wasn’t positive I’d made the right one. The choice was good, the car is nice, the mileage low and the cost great. But I had to decide. There was no give and take, no negotiation with Andrea about whether we should get this or the other model. She didn’t get angry when I didn’t come home with the car because they wouldn’t come down on the price only to have the dealership call and cave in and give us the car. It was just a straight purchase.

The kids love the car, it’s new, it’s shiny, it’s like a dog hearing a squirrel.

But I realize what this really is. It’s another sign of moving on. I am happy for us on one hand, we’ve managed to find a way to get what we needed, nothing too much more, and move on. But it also means just that – we’ve moved on. It’s not like the dishes or cleaning or laundry, the daily necessities, it’s a pretty major decision and choice, and I made it. Without her there to help me. It’s not like I’m paralyzed and need the second opinion, I obviously can make the choices and had a lot of input in what we did.

But I didn’t want to. It’s another decision, another sign that she’s slipping away. It’s another day where I’ve ended up sitting here writing and seeing the pieces start to fade.

I am happy we have what we need, and sad that we lose what we want. I drove it around the neighborhood with the kids and put my arm in the middle console and when I got home I realized I didn’t wait for her hand to touch mine.

We gained a little peace of mind, but lost another memory.

The replacement for "sexy"

How to win friends and influence people . . .

Joel Sartore at Work . . . pardon the photo theft, Joel!


Whether you know it or not, every day you have an effect on people. It’s really up to you how you’re remembered. I know that sounds cheesy, very “Remember the Golden Rule” kind of a thing, but I’m hoping that what I have to recount will give you pause and make you realize, if you ever have that George Bailey moment you take into consideration just what one little interaction can mean to someone else.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you realize already I’m mentioning Andrea in this post. It’s always strange to realize that you have no idea what an impact you have until you’re gone. There’s a reason that Samuel Clemens used Tom Sawyer’s funeral as a literary device. The downside for me is that the reports of Andrea’s demise are not exaggerated.

I could mention the funeral here, it would fit. There was a myriad of people there. Sure, there was the contingent of people that were at the church simply to show support to me and the kids, that’s a given. That wasn’t the full measure of the response, though. The church, which holds a good many people (just go to any Easter or Christmas mass, you heathens) was filled. Not a scattering of people throughout the church but standing room only. It was a testament to the fact that when she was healthy and able, Andrea spent a ton of time up at the school and the church and wanted to be involved with the people there. She loved it.

But that’s an obvious simile. My story goes back farther, and as always, was an example of how she went above and beyond just because she was doing something nice for me.

A good many years ago I had been a member of the National Press Photographers Association, or NPPA. It helped me learn, gave me opportunities to steal ideas from other shooters, just was a good organization for storytelling. In their monthly magazine they’d run a profile of a National Geographic photographer by the name of Joel Sartore. I was already familiar with Joel’s work, and if you’re not, you should be. I had always wanted to be a Geographic shooter, but I didn’t take that path, I went into television. With kids, a family, travelling most the year and waiting in a tree canopy for a week for a single shot of a pig isn’t in the cards any more, but it would have to be an amazing career. (If you roll your eyes and wonder why I’d be excited, if you can watch Joel’s segment on shooting Grizzlies on Geographic Explorer, talking about the “bear bells” he finds at REI and NOT laugh, well, you’re made of stone) He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska . . . because he wants to. He loves the state, the people, and thinks the Midwest is an amazing place, so I obviously had a soft spot for his work. Just a couple days later our consumer help line – the unit I was now producing and shooting for – got a call from, of all people, Joel. He was having trouble with directory assistance. He had lost dozens of clients because when freelance hires would call to get his number they’d be given a twelve-year-old number. He’d run into people who told him “I had a job that had you written all over it, but . . . just couldn’t find you. Have you moved?”

His wife forced him to call. He thought she was nuts. I, however, jumped at the chance to talk with him and already had contacts with one of the phone companies. I was new to the consumer thing, had a little cockiness, probably came across a bit too confident, and talked with Joel and his son on-camera, talking with his wife off-camera. I won’t bore you with details, but we got the Lincoln phone company’s competition to fix the national database and his phone was his phone number again.

So where my wife comes in is some months later. Joel had done a profile of Nebraska for Nat Geo. The magazine let him use all his unused photos and create an amazing book called “Under a Big Red Sky” for publication by the University Press. It was all I could talk about because a lot of the Northern Nebraska cities I frequented were featured in the book. I kept trying to buy it and Andrea kept blocking me asking me to wait.

What I didn’t know was that Andrea had wandered into the Barnes and Noble in the Crossroads Mall in Omaha specifically to buy the book. They had a few left – it sold well – and noticed that she had missed, by about an hour, a signing by the author. She looked, though, and in a corner of the store, packing books and paperwork up, was Joel, cleaning up after a very long afternoon. She walked over, apologetically asking him if he’d sign her book. She told Joel it was for her husband, someone he’d met awhile back. She wasn’t sure he’d remember me, but Joel’s book was all I would talk about and she was hoping she might convince him to sign it. When she told Joel who her husband was, he lit up. He signed the book, put “my phone is still ringing!” in the inscription and talked with Andrea for a long time inside the store. When I opened it she told me about meeting him in the store, talking with him for a long time, listening to his regaling tales of the pictures in the book. She thought he was funny, intelligent and talented. That was the only contact Joel had with her.

Every year or so, when something changes, I send Joel a note letting him know where I am and asking how he’s doing. As I was getting ready to send out Christmas cards I realized I hadn’t spoken with Joel in over a year. It’s always odd sending a note and starting off with the fact that your life has taken an odd sort of tragic turn. But I told him where our lives had gone, that my wife had passed (remember this, and notice I didn’t use her name) and that we’d moved. I did mention that he’d met her once and that she’d talked about how much she’d liked him.

Joel is busy, mind you. He’s either on assignment or off with his family, both of which are insanely important. But he got right back to me, and indicated that he “remembered Andrea”. The woman who’d found him in the store and asked him to sign, and I know from her description that she wouldn’t have left until he did, he remembered meeting her. She’d had an impact. I may seem a little thing to you, but it’s a big deal to me. It verifies what I keep saying: she was just an amazing, memorable, brilliant woman. A man who I know, but my wife had met only once and gave him pause.

You can meet someone once, simply once, so what impression do you want to give? Andrea met this person, a man who travels the world and sees those amazing people, places and creatures you can only read about, and she made an impact. This man, with his own story, 3 kids, a wife who is battling cancer, and he took the time to talk with this woman who made it a point to show how much she loved me. Did I push as much for her? What impact did I have on someone hoping to get her a present? There is part of me that hopes in the end my thoughts of her go far beyond this simple writing. She met and impacted people everywhere, from a church full of people, to a world-renowned photographer, and the influences pop up in the most amazing places.

What impact to you want to be remembered for? I see and hear stories about this amazing woman, this beautiful person, and I am saddened by the fact that I am no longer part of our story. But when I hear people who met her only briefly speak of her with fondness and I can’t help but be uplifted. I can only hope I have half the impression she did.

Joel Sartore, Photographing your Family

Seasonal Effective Disorder

The boys before the presents overflowed.

It would be so easy to screw this all up. It really would. I’m not saying I haven’t, by the way, I think like most parents, I wouldn’t know if I did until I was so far into the morass of troubles that it would be too hard to find the way out.

I thought I was on the wrong track about the holidays until this weekend. I am constantly worried that all I do is harp on what isn’t completed in the house and pushing to eat all their dinner. I tell them they have to have fruit instead of plain processed bought candies. I make desserts because there’s some ingredient in all the bought stuff that literally has my kids climbing the walls when they eat the tiniest bit. I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t plain sugar, I cook with that all the time and the kids are fine.

Every year we sacrificed in order to get my kids the presents and Christmas that we thought we’d had. There were two things wrong with this scenario. First, of course, is that fact that when we got the Christmases we both thought were “typical” in our households we were teenagers, our parents were doing very well, and they owned their own businesses. When our kids are babies or little, they really don’t care. As long as there’s paper to rip and a box to play in, they’re happy, something I’m not sure we ever completely grasped. The other problem was that I could never tell Andrea “no”. Never. I mean, there were things I put my foot down about, sure. I would never stop playing guitar. I wasn’t going to let my wife feed her jealousy and somewhat crazy thoughts that my mother liked my brothers’ wives better than her. (Totally wrong, by the way, and the way they dropped everything they were doing to help us should prove that) But financially, I was a moron when she would ask for things. I wanted to give her the world and I did it quite often at costs I could never have afforded. It was a dangerous thing and I’d never met a woman before or since that had that effect on me.

When Christmas came, we got everything we could afford and then some . . . and then the fat guy in a red suit got all the credit when he brought something bigger. The kids loved Mac and Cheese so they never noticed if that’s what we ate for a month or two regularly.

So you can see my dilemma, at least I hope you can. What message did we send those kids? Now that she’s not here, what happens? I admit, I over-compensated this Christmas. I bought a lot. I sold some old stock from my last job, the last bastions of a bygone era of my life that I figured needed to go because it wasn’t going to earn me much more money anyway. Once everything was wrapped and the “letters to Santa” sent for what he should bring, I was concerned. There were a lot of presents under there. Sure, some were for grandparents, or uncle/aunt. But I was really worried that in a year fraught with tragedy, stress and impossible problems I was making things worse.

I have a son who got into inordinate amounts of trouble at school, and a lot of that is the fact that he sees the world from a different angle. He likes to be the center of attention, and I’m working on that, but he also has a very funny, very skewed view of the world. I didn’t want him to see this as reason to continue acting out or as the way it will be from now on. This is a “good” Christmas, financially, but they won’t all be. They’re going to get sparser and sparser.

I have a daughter who has two days of a month’s grounding because she didn’t do her homework, lied to me about the assignments due and why the grades were so bad and then was in danger of being held back. I can’t get her to do the one chore of unloading/loading the dishwasher. I am constantly on her back to do things because the more I say the less she does. She’s the one child that, when we’re late getting out the door, moves slower as a result. My father once told her if she moved any slower she’d be moving backwards. Even she had to laugh at that.

I look and wonder if the kids are more concerned about the presents. One morning I overheard Noah telling his sister Hannah: “Hannah, you only have 2 presents under there. I have more.” I was worried about it. They always have this insane competitive nature – something they got from their mother. (not pushing that off, it’s true, she was insane about competing for things) I catch them counting every time I peek into the room.

Then this weekend when I thought I was going to have to trim down the gift giving, that same son, the one I thought was competing with presents, came up and asked me something.

“Can I come with you to Target today, Daddy?”
“Why son?”
“I want to get Abbi, Hannah and Sam presents. I want to make sure they have some.”
“I put presents under there for them, it’s OK, Noah, they’ll have stuff to open.”
“I know, but I want to get them something. I already have something for you. I put it under the tree already.”

You see, Noah wasn’t competing the presents, he was worried that his brother and sisters wouldn’t have as much. He was trying to ensure the balance was there and was more concerned about giving something. He had even checked prices and asked if we could pay for what he wanted to get them. He was also very worried because there was nothing under the tree for me.

I almost cried.

I guess I had never really thought about that fact, that there was nothing under there for Dad. What do you tell the kids when you’re the only one in charge of Christmas? How do you handle the fact that they’re dealing with a season that is meant to be shared and you have no partner to share it with? I realized right there that I was compensating not for their loss but for mine. I wanted their Christmas to be great, but I wanted to make sure that I couldn’t tell that there was one name that was obviously missing under the tree, too.

I didn’t need the reminder that my kids are amazing, but I got it anyway. It looked like, at least in this instance, I’d done something right to make him worry more about everyone else than himself.

I wish I could just figure out what it was. That way I could make them think this way about their chores. The dishwasher still needs to be unloaded.

Noah and Sam, before the presents overflowed

The little things make all the difference

Just a Little Bit by T-Bone Walker

The Christmas play with all 3 little ones in the crowd

I got an email yesterday from someone who made me think a little bit about how much we miss Andrea. The question was whether I knew what I had until it was gone. I, being the middle-of-the-road-neutral journalist basically waffled and said what really is the truth: yes and no.

I think if you read the entries up to this point, I make very clear that I wouldn’t be where I am without Andrea. I know, without question, that I was so very fortunate to have had this amazing, wonderful woman in my life. When I met her she was this brilliant, blazing woman who was so attractive and so amazing and she ended up with me. Without a doubt in my mind, I got the better end of that deal. In a sea of men who were more attractive, more confident, stronger and nicer she still waded through them all and picked me. She plucked me out of my own mediocrity and helped me to see that there was so much more out there and I could be part of it.

But the little things . . . the pieces of her that permeate the cells of our daily lives . . . those are the things I miss. Did I realize at the time that her choices of decorations and design of our home and the clothes that she helped me pick out were things that made my life better? Absolutely. Did I thank her for them? Probably not near enough, but there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t let her know that I was a better man for having met her. I may regret a lot of things, but I know that I wasn’t going to let her think I wasn’t grateful for where I am now.

But I also know there are things that she just took care of. There are things that are simply beyond the comprehension of a guy to know.

Last night was the kids’ Christmas play. On a good day I’m behind the 8-ball, during Christmas it’s like I have scratched on every shot. I don’t have all the presents wrapped. I don’t have the house cleaned up. The laundry is piling up. The boys and Hannah went through huge growth spurts and their clothes simply don’t fit. I had to run to Target and buy clothes for all of them. For the boys that’s not a problem. A white dress shirt, pair of pants, maybe some socks and shoes, but I’ve never been good with the girls. Not really.

I got the wrong sized pants for Hannah. I bought two shirts because I wasn’t sure which would look good on her. The boys I had shower, got them dressed, did their hair, they looked great.

But I have no idea how I would have managed last night without my oldest daughter. My wife always had the kids looking brilliant. Hannah would have looked like a doll out of a Christmas pageant. She would have had a beautiful dress that matched the colors the play needed and she would have had curly, amazing hair and accomplished it even while the girl screamed that she didn’t want to look so girly.

Last night I was totally at a loss. I had the boys to get ready and only Hannah’s shirt worked. Abbi drove her to Target, got pants and had her try them on, got home, helped her get dressed (and wear the clothes right as in girls’ waists are much higher than a boy’s so stop low-riding your pants!) and then braided her hair and flat ironed it so that she looked beautiful. Much like her mother, we had less than 30 minutes to get to the program so she wore what she had in her room and headed out the door. She even managed to convince Hannah to wear a little mascara so her eyelashes would stand out.

These are the things – the everyday little things that I have no idea how to do and likely never will – that I never thought about and probably never would have. She found the right clothes. She found the right presents. She just helped make sure we succeeded. Last night, but for the effort of the whole group, we would have failed, miserably. As I’ve been fond of saying before: we’re stronger together than we ever were apart. I look at Abbi doing her sister’s hair, the smile on both their faces, talking about how Mom used to pull the tangles out of their hair, or how last year she helped do this thing or that thing and I was both proud and sad.

The program was a Christmas program. It was short, the Nativity story acted out by junior-high kids who were alternately thrilled and mortified to be up there, and sung by every grade from Kindergarten up.

It was brilliant.

You’d think seeing my kids singing on the altar of the church would have been what made me emotional, thinking about how there’s one large piece of the puzzle missing. But it was actually the kindergartners and the 1st graders that did it. Understand, when we moved here, Abbi was little and Hannah was in kindergarten. In that very church, in those very pews, we watched those kids every year, hearing those same Christmas carols. When the little ones would come out Andrea would get all a-flutter and slap my leg, screaming “they’re so damn cute!” and squeeze my hand. Every year. Without fail I would roll my eyes but secretly love it. This year they came out and it wasn’t there. The crowd went “ahhhh”, and Abbi said how cute they were. A mom next to me held her husband’s hand, and I knew that these kids were here being positively brilliant and I didn’t have her here to share it with.

That’s what I miss. It’s not that “I want someone to share it with,” it’s that I want HER to share it. It was a little thing, but it’s gone. I got through Hannah, then Noah & Sam’s classes, and was melancholy. But the little ones came out, their tiny voices filling the air, and I remembered all those amazing nights, when my kids were those little voices and it made me truly happy to be a Dad. Truly happy to be married. Tonight, I only get one of those things.

So all I asked was for her to give a little bit. She gave far more. She gave me big, amazing things, life, confidence, spirit and a voice.

So back to the question. Did I realize what she gave to me, or is it “you don’t miss the water until the well runs dry”? It’s both. I was so aware, particularly in the beginning, that Andrea was brilliant and that she made everything amazing. But I miss the little things I just never gave a thought to as well – the hair, the clothes, the decorations. We did all of these things together. Did I thank her for all those tiny little things? No, not nearly enough. But we were a team. A brilliant team. She came up with ideas and I helped to implement them. We talked about everything. When she bought those clothes she told me about them. When Abbi wanted a dress for homecoming and Andrea wouldn’t budge because it was too expensive . . . I caved in and bought it anyway. We had give and take. We worked off each others’ strengths.

Better still, she gave me love. She gave me so many little things that I miss more and more every day. I didn’t want much, I just wanted a little bit. And she gave me so much more.


Haunted by the memory . . .

I Can’t Make You Love Me by Bonnie Raitt from the LP Luck of the Draw

Abbi in one of our great Fall Moments

Lately it seems we’re seeing her more and more . . . not a physical presence. I don’t feel a cold chill on my neck or a shiver down my spine.  I don’t hear a strange ethereal voice that won’t stop in my ears.  I just mean the memory creeps in at the strangest and most inopportune moments.

I knew it would happen, though.  I mean, it’s Christmas.  I could make some cheesy reference about family or the “reason for the season” but that all falls short.  I just always had such an affinity for this time of year.  Not just Christmas, but starting in the Fall, with the crisp bite in the air and the changing color of the leaves.  Even though I have the attention span of a gnat some days and I love my music and playing guitar, etc. . . the Fall is the time of year I slow down and appreciate what I have around me.  I miss the Midwest (yes, I do, don’t mock me!) because of the Fall.  We were surrounded by trees.  There were old WPA shelterbelts planted that had a myriad of trees . . . oaks, cottonwoods, ash, elm, maple . . . all of them full-sized and decades old by the time I was a kid.  Come October and November there were flaming colors up in the sky.  Add that clean, clear sky with the sunset and it’s really a beautiful sight.  There are things like that here, but it’s not the same.  That’s home for me, and it was home with Andrea for a long time.

When I met her, after we got married, and even as we moved to other states, we always took advantage of the Fall and Winter.  I would drag her into the car and we’d go walk down tree-lined streets and kick the leaves.  When Abbi and then Hannah, Noah, Sam were born we did the same, extending it to pumpkin patches and tree farms and the Fontenelle Forest.

So now it’s Christmas, the year we lost her, and she’s creeping back in, just when I thought I was doing better.  I’ve said this before, but it’s not the major events – the Christmas, the Thanksgiving, all those momentous days – that hurt the worst.  I know they’ll be bad, I know they’ll change, but I can see them coming.  It’s the times when something sparks a memory that I’m not prepared for that just take me down.  Tomorrow night is the Christmas play for the kids.  Andrea always had things perfect.  I’m now the guy wandering through Target looking for the pieces of clothing for my 12-year-old girl who doesn’t like wearing girl clothes and I don’t know what will look good on her.  I walk through and see a sweater and all I can see is how it would look on Andrea, not Hannah, and I don’t know why.

I’m wrapping presents and in the way I fold the paper I can see her hands moving the stuff around.  I remember the year we were so strapped we used brown paper bags and she wrapped them this way . . . and decorated them.  With crayons, paint, ink, and made the most beautiful tree I had ever seen.  It was like nothing I’d seen before, and then I look down and I have bought paper and sticky name tags because I just don’t have the time to be that creative.

I am making cupcakes (store-bought cake mix.  Don’t give me that much credit) for lunches and CSI is on the TV.  (DVR, it was more like 10:30 when I did this) It’s a random episode.  It’s about a coroner’s wife accused of murder and having an affair . . . and it ends with the two of them drinking wine, on a back patio, and listening to Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”.  It’s a song we listened to so much I thought the cassette would wear out.  Andrea loved it but disliked the lyrics, she just felt something when it was on the stereo and it made her look at me in a way I can’t describe here.  I saw it in the actors on the TV and I almost threw my spatula across the kitchen.

She’s everywhere.

I mean, it’s not like the last few months, where there’s a memory here or a peek there.  Not like the daily routine where I wake up and remind myself that I’m alone in the bed – again – and start the routine to get the day started.  It’s the stuff we thought we’d left behind when we left the house.  Abbi was hit hardest there.  At one point she told me everywhere she turned she saw her Mom.  I wasn’t sad to leave the house, I was happy.  It wasn’t our favorite place; it wasn’t Andrea’s favorite; we saw her everywhere and we just couldn’t handle it.  Leaving there was a blessing.

But we’re surrounded by her.  The garland has her bows that have a hint of leopard spots in them – that’s all her.  The ornaments on the tree are surrounded by her childhood ornaments that her Mom foisted upon us years ago because she didn’t want to store them.  She picked out the stockings.  She sewed the tree skirt.  Everywhere I turn she’s there.

Now I can’t even go to Target without seeing her.  The kids see her, too.  They’re talking more and more about last Christmas.  They ask about Santa and then talk about Mom threatening to have me call the “head elf” on them.  They see books and clothes from her and talk about it.  It’s not a bad thing, it’s healthy.  They need to talk and I guess I do, too.  But I don’t think I was ready for it to be just so overwhelming.

Then one of the boys asked what we were going to do this Christmas.

“Are we doing things different, Dad?”
“I don’t know yet, son.”
“Holly has a tradition where they open one present before Christmas, can we do that?”
“Not sure yet.”
“Are we opening presents on Christmas Eve, like Grandma and Grandpa?” chimes in Hannah.
“I just don’t KNOW!” is my horribly curt response.

That’s what’s killing me.  I don’t know.  I bought some new decorations.  I changed the way we did things.  But do I change it all?  Do I go back to how I did things as a kid so we make a clean, instant break from the way we did things with their Mom?  Or do we continue.  Is it good to start over or do you hurt their memories and traditions if you do?  Each present I wrap makes me think a little harder and I don’t honestly know what I’ll do until I have to decide.

Tomorrow night, before their Christmas play, I plan on taking a picture of us.  Earlier in the year we’d talked about mimicking an old family photo, but putting a picture of Andrea where she should be.  Now I wonder if it’s better to show everyone that we’re together, that we have had to move one . . . that we have moved on.

I had so many decisions that seemed simple and prudent at the time.  It’s hard to stick to your guns when you’re haunted by a memory everywhere you turn.

Like everything else, I’ll put it off until I have to.  Then I’ll decide, and it probably won’t be as big a deal as I’ve made it in my head, but anything that pushes her a little farther away is a hard decision.

Put the weight right on me . . .

The Weight by Aretha Franklin, Written by Levon Helm An alternate version of this classic song, with Duane Allman on slide guitar!

I knew Christmas was going to be hard, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (do we even have those anymore?  Now that NASA got rid of all our shuttles?) to figure it out.  What I figured was that it was going to pull on my heart and drain me emotionally.  Don’t get me wrong, it does, but I never expected the physical difficulties that go along with it.

I have four kids, not like you didn’t know that, but I emphasize to make a point.  3 of the 4 are in the same school and Grade/Middle school age, so the whole Christmas season is there for me to tackle.  It actually starts with my middle child (I call her the middle, she came 2nd, the boys 3rd, kind of count them as a package deal) and her start for Confirmation.  It’s a Catholic thing, you really don’t need the details.  What you do need to know is that, unlike when I went to Catholic school, where the lessons, preparation, all of it came during the religion classes and in extra school day work.  Now it’s on the weekends and they prep you over the course of a couple years.  Hannah started that in November, moving onto December. Being the child with the worst procrastination tendencies in the world, she forgot to fill out her forms, have her sponsor inform her the information she needed, and neglected to find the Catholic Youth Bible she needed until . . . of course . . . 2 days before the meeting.

Then there’s Christmas.  I love Christmas . . . the whole Christmas season.  (Please don’t ask why, no one quite knows the reason . . . you get the point)  But with children it’s not without its stresses.  I have two boys who have to have secret Santa gifts . . . My middle daughter, she needs one too, though being Hannah, she didn’t inform me what we need to get.  That all starts in the next few days.  There’s the Christmas play . . . which of course the kids have to have clothes for.  Since the boys and Hannah have both grown exponentially in the last year, there’s no wearing what we have in the closet.  This has been on top the fact that they come home every day with their white shirts brown or black from playing soccer on the playground.  There are holes in their uniform pants.  The brand new jeans have holes in the knees.

I have to buy Christmas presents.

I’m not complaining about the cost, don’t get that impression, I get it.  It’s part of the cost of having kids and I have four of them.  (Before they come, I know there are ways to either prevent pregnancy or “choices” that we could have made.  That ship has sailed . . . on both counts . . . I’m not making a political statement, get over it!)  What you don’t realize is just how much you share that burden when you have the other person there.  If you have two parents, and they’re both involved in raising the kids – I don’t care if they’re divorced or still married – it’s amazing you accomplish everything as it is.  I just wasn’t prepared for the holidays like I thought I was.

After the Confirmation chaos, I had to start with presents.  Andrea spent a lot of weekdays with the kids, so much so that she knew exactly what they wanted, or what would be best for them.  I have to ask what they want and get the inevitable child’s “I don’t know” (in that mumbled, half-talk, Harrison Ford in the current era marbles in the cheeks voice)  Four kids, no ideas.  I mean, I got ideas, I figured it out, but the days of sitting on the couch with Andrea and talking out what the kids each want and what they get are gone.  My closest person is Abbi, and I don’t want to talk too much about this with her.  She’s still 16.  Even if you do or don’t believe in Santa any more, there’s just something magical about NOT knowing everything.  You shouldn’t be part of the Christmas preps if you’re not the parent.

It’s all about time and my lack of it.  I have to steal time to go to Target or surf Amazon after I make lunches at night.  Even now I have presents hidden and few wrapped.  I finally got the Christmas play uniforms, but we ate dinner at almost 8pm as a result.

Jolly isn’t the adjective for me right now.  Stressed out and gaining more white than black hairs is.  I look at the tree and see a pathetic few presents wrapped and stay up past 1 wrapping a few each night so the kids can see I haven’t forgotten.  I can see the anticipation on their faces and there’s part of me that sees them look at me and wonder if we’re going to make it through the holiday.  I have to put on that face that acts like I know what I’m doing and say “we’re not done yet, there will be a few more under there soon.”

I know somehow there will, but every time I get one thing done, three more things land on my plate.  I look around at things I have to take care of and realize that they’re the things Andrea took care of and I was blissfully unaware what she did.  I had my own part of the bargain to deal with.  What do you get a teenage girl?  Andrea would find great makeup or jewelry or perfume or something.  I am a Dad.  Worse than that, I’m a Midwestern corn-fed, football watching musician of a man.  All I know about those things is if the person’s wearing too much of it.  She’s past the age when Barbies and Legos are wonderful.  So how do I make it magical for her?  Andrea left and took those secrets with her.

I look at Christmas as the first big Litmus Test.  I mean, what happens when Hannah hits puberty hard and heavy?  When I have to talk to this kind, naive, beautiful girl and let her know that the guys she looks at as best friends will eventually have only 1 thing on their minds.  If they don’t already.

“Tis the season, sure, but the season is a test.  If I fail, it sets the tone for the rest of the story.  I’m straining under the pressure.  I never realized how much Andrea and I relied on each other.  Now I truly feel the absence.  It’s so true, she let me put some of the weight on her shoulders, so we could both stand up straight.

Now, I hope that all I do is bend.  None of us can afford for me to break.

The First Cut is the Deepest . . .

A skinnier me during a work trip

Last night I had written that we’d already started writing our new story, the first lines already on the page without knowing it.  That doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing or that I’m ready to embrace that.  My life is still a constant battle and the worst part is I never know where the front is.

The biggest thing is worrying about screwing up.  I get the messages and the phone calls and the notes, all saying how great a job I’m doing, telling me that the kids are doing great, telling me how we can get through it all and it’s OK.

But it’s not.

This will sound overly dramatic, but every day we’re walking on the edge of a knife.  I know it’s an old analogy, and it’s harsh, but it’s still apt.  Slip but a little and we get cut, and we’ve got a lot of nicks, we’re bleeding a lot.  The kids themselves walk the sharpened edge, but they don’t necessarily realize it.  The hardest and worst part is that they walk behind a singular person that is supposed to guide them safely to the hilt: me.  I live in a constant worry that we won’t just slip, we’ll fall, and then what happens?

It’s not just the theory that I didn’t get them clothes that fit or nutritious dinners or a decent Christmas.  It’s that I’m like that guy in the sideshow with a bunch of little sticks with plates spinning on them.  Let one slow down too much and it falls.

I know I’m being so over-the-top in my metaphors, but I think a lot about how easy it is for me to get this wrong.  I don’t start with the last 8-9 months, let’s go back a year.  I’ve lost my Aunt, my Grandfather, my wife, my house, was pushed out of a job and lost half our household income and am now the sole breadwinner.  We didn’t have life insurance.  My daughter who had been going to an all-girls private high school had to make the switch her junior year to public school.  Each one of those items has been a gash that has hit us, the cuts dripping as we walk.

Every decision I make is predicated on those four kids.  I posted this picture yesterday of the 5 of us.  It’s a picture from the day of the funeral.  The kids look brilliant, particularly for where they were about to go in just a few short minutes after that picture.  By that day, I’d gained 70 pounds from my normal, healthy weight.  I couldn’t walk up the hill to our house without being out of breath.  I had a massive moment of panic that sparked me to stop what I was doing.

To give you some context, the worst thing in the world I have ever had to do was to go home on the 26th of March and look into those four little faces, the kids who look to me for guidance and stability, and break their hearts.  The night before, Andrea had reacted to us, had looked at me not through me, if that makes sense.  I had this sense of optimism and every little movement and reaction to stimulus was a momentous celebration for me.  I had allowed myself to get a little hopeful.  It bled over to the kids.  So imagine my horror after letting it sink in that Andrea had died when I realized I had to go home and tell them that she isn’t coming home.  That they would never see her again, and even though I said it would get better, even though I was acting like it was all turning around, she’s gone.  My nightmare was one of them hitting me, yelling at me, accusing me of lying or brushing them off.  I hadn’t, but I would have thought that way.  I would have asked if I’d known this was coming all along.  Instead, Hannah, the sweetest, most adorable, even-keeled child I know, begged me to go back to the hospital because there was no way they had gotten it right.

“They sometimes get it wrong, Dad.  Please  go back, Daddy.  You have to go back, they have to be wrong.”

I can never, ever, hear that kind of panic and disappointment again.  You can talk about the “rapture” and 2012 and the end of the world, but you don’t have a clue.  I’ve seen the end of the world.  I’ve seen it in their faces, and it’s worse than you can possibly imagine.

I made a decision that I have to walk that edge with them.  I will fall, I will take the cuts and the scratches.  I started eating better, trying to get healthier, trying to be more of what they need.  I saw what losing Andrea did to them, I cannot stand to think what would happen if they lost me.  So no more trips overseas.  No coverage of Israel and Pakistan.  No embedding with the Air Mobility Wing.  I can find plenty of stories to cover very close to home.  These kids lost their Mom.  If I don’t stick around for more than a few more years, even if it’s in the way I eat, drink or act, I have failed them and they don’t just fall and get nicked, they fall and split open.  They fail because of my failure.

So when people ask why I wake up every morning and make breakfast; why I make homemade treats for their lunches; why I don’t allow pop in their lunches or caffeine in Hannah, Noah or Sam’s drinks; why I tell Abbi to leave the kids in extended day so she isn’t babysitting them more than an hour or two each day, it’s not because I’m being stubborn.  I’m being realistic.  These are the things, the routines that they need, deserve, and have to have if I want them to survive.  Abbi’s natural tendency was to try and act like she had to be their Mom.  I won’t let that happen.  She’s 16, she needs to be 16.  I injured my back some time ago and the doctor told me that I should avoid bending, picking up the kids, chasing them around, football, baseball . . . everything that makes them kids.  My answer was a resounding “no”.

They need those times, those memories.  If I can move around and throw the football around; if I can chase them up the stairs and tickle them; if I can pick them up and carry them to bed because they have a fever and are weak, I’m going to do it.  The worst thing in the world for them was finding out that their parents aren’t immortal.  The will always wonder, their Mom leaving them so early, if it’s going to happen again.  Sam is always making sure where I am.  Abbi checks on me when I get a cough or a headache.  If I can behave like I’m the same, normal guy they always had around, they can feel like life continues and we can start writing on the page together.

The only way I knew how to do that was by example.  My Mom made breakfast every morning.  She did the wash.  She cleaned our cuts.  My parents played with us, took us on vacation, and made us feel safe.  They only have one parent, but if I have to get 4 hours sleep but make a week’s worth of pancakes and waffles in individual ziplocks so we have homemade breakfast; if we drive to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon instead of sitting and watching TV; if we roast marshmallows in an outside fire pit, that’s what I’ll do.

We’ve already been cut, falling on the knife on March 26th when Andrea left us.  I worry so much about what happens to those kids, that I’ll fail, that they won’t have the memories they need from their childhood, the basis for the men and women they will become.  I want to continue the illusion that their Dad is immortal because now that’s what they need.  I’m not Spartacus, Hercules, The Gipper or even Patton.  But I will fight and fall on that knife’s edge so they don’t.

I can’t imagine most parents don’t think this way.  Do you?  What do you do to make sure your kids don’t look back at their lives and wonder why or how they got there?  Don’t we all worry about how our actions ripple outward to hit our children?

My kids already got wounded once, and it was near mortal.  Now I’ll take the hits, the nicks, and get back up, bleeding though I am.  I know I can take it, I already did.

The first cut was the deepest.

The First Cut Is the Deepest by Sheryl Crow

I’m Not Drowning . . .

The new family - I'm a bit skinnier now - a bit.

It happened this weekend.  The transition, that is.

Just about everything we’ve done over the last 8 1/2 months has had the influence, feel and presence of my wife swirling around it.  When I make breakfast for the kids, I take out the kid plates, these day-glo plastic rhomboids made by Ikea.  Andrea picked those out.  They seemed easier and less breakable for the boys in particular.  When we moved here and bought them at the massive Swedish testament to vanilla modernity across the river in West Sacramento.

I tuck in the kids and they all have sheets, bedspreads, dressers, beds . . . all of it picked out (with my “approval” meaning sure, I’m asking you what you think, but it’s the bed we’re going to buy anyway, it just makes you feel better) by Andrea.

Hell, my clothing, haircut, all of it are influenced by her amazing spark of creativity and style.  It’s not that I don’t want it, I loved it, every minute of it.  But the problem is, these pieces are the only things left.  When the plastic starts to thin, the clothing frays, the bedspreads and sheets stain . . . what then?

Well, we move on.  I didn’t want to, and it’s so hard to do it because she’s been the driving force behind my transition in to normalcy.  I was an angry, gangly, annoyingly stubborn kid with a horrible haircut, no sense of style and less than zero self-confidence.  It isn’t a shallow thing to say that this amazing woman changed that – changed me.  With her gone, where do I go from here?  Will I change with the times the way I should, or will I sit here, pining over the loss, will I stagnate and remain the same?

It’s easy to understand how I could do this.  There is something that’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t suffered this kind of loss.  I still feel her presence, the physical, tangible, tactile feeling.  There’s the thought she’s in the bed next to me in the twilight of sleep.  There’s the gut reaction to turn and tell her something amazing happened or to vent when the bad did.  But she’s not there, and it’s horrible to realize it because for a fleeting moment you relive the months leading up to that moment all over again.

And you like it.

Yes, you heard me right, I hate the pain and I revel in it as well.  The part people don’t realize is that you are so tied to this amazing person, you love her so much, that you live in and relish the pain that comes with missing her because that’s the only thing you have left.  There’s a part of me, however crazy, that feels like the less the pain hits, the less of her that stays behind.  I want her there.  I am a better man for having met her, so will I keep being that man now that she’s gone?

It would be so easy to fall into place.  I’ve already started.  I’ve been listening to old LP’s, living in the memories of our early dating and marriage.  I pine for the woman who drew me in.  I reminisce on the seductive nature of the woman who just hypnotized me with her smiling eyes.  I have watched John Hughes movies.  I subjected myself to Sleepless in Seattle because it was her favorite movie.  I listen to crappy ’80s/’90s stations because they remind me of her and of that time and I hurt, I tear up and I love it.  I’m inclined to just let the flood hit, drown in the memories.

It would be so easy to stay there.

But there are four little people who don’t.  That’s what pulls me out of the past and pushes me forward.  Andrea strove for perfection, in all things.  If she got less than an “A” in a class, even in Pharmacy School, which she attended after our oldest was born, she was motivated by that perfection.  She rubbed off on me to a degree, but there’s something she just didn’t realize, something that caused arguments; something that I have come to both realize and embrace.

It’s the imperfections that make it perfect.

Our house is now a mish-mash of Christmas decorations.  The perfect stockings on the fireplace, the combination of homemade ones on the banister.  We have two trees, most of the decorations homemade.  I put up my stereo even though Andrea hated it because it was old and clunky and was “obvious” in how it sat in the living room.  I have guitars hanging up and sitting out because they are part of me.  There’s the perfection, too, the decorations, the paintings, the artwork, the sconces, all of it an amazing tribute to this beautiful woman.

Then this weekend we did it.  Something she’d never have bought, something with no connection.  I was buying Christmas presents and needed a piece for our decorations at the hardware store.  They had a little metal fire pit, like a Chimera, for sale and I bought one.  We needed something to just have fun and there’s something about a fire, be it in the fireplace or the back yard.

I lit the fire, we put chairs around, got out the marshmallows, Hershey bars and graham crackers.  I got the skewers from inside the house and we made S’Mores.  They were messy, crazy, hot, silly . . . and it was just us.  Andrea wouldn’t have wanted that fire.  She would have done the food, but not the fire pit.  It wasn’t her.

The thing is, to survive, to help these kids move on, we have to make our own memories, not live in the past ones.  Not keep doing the same old routine or the same traditions.  They’re gone.  Don’t take this too far.  I’m not erasing her, she’s far too special and far too amazing, and every day, I have reason to feel the hurt and let it wash over me in enjoyment.  The kids need to know it’s OK to have an amazing and happy time without her, though.  Not everything has to touch on her.

So we’ve re-done the decorations.  We added more lights, though she’d have hated that.  I’ve bought the Christmas presents by myself.  We’ll open the presents on Christmas Eve instead of Day, because that’s how MY family did, and now that’ show OUR family will do it.

It’s high time I broke out the pen and started writing the story for real.  We’ve had enough flashback, enough recap of our last writing.  It’s just that the hardest part is putting the pen to the page and writing because it makes it real.  She’s actually gone.

But when I look and my daughter posts on her Facebook page for all to see: “Roasting marshmallows in the backyard, making s’mores and going to bed smelling like a chimney…life is good,” I realized we’ve started writing without even knowing it.

I guess, in the end, it can’t happen because today I’m not drowning.

01 I’m Not Drowning by Steve Winwood from the LP Nine Lives

Strange Meadow Lark . . .

Strange Meadow Lark
OK, yes, I did use the title just so I could get a Brubeck song into the post for his birthday, too, but it’s my prerogative, I’m doing the writing after all.

The holidays are a scramble, even on the best of years, particularly financially.  I have four kids, which makes for a lot less money to dole out between children.  Now that I’ve lost my wife, and by virtue of that, a second income, I’ve lost a lot of ability to get presents and pay the bills.  (If you think that’s all I miss, by the way, go back and read previous blog posts here and then try to criticize me!)  Before you say it’s what I get for having four kids – I knew what I was doing, I went ahead and slept with my wife, I could have found ways to have only 2 kids.


I never thought I’d be doing this alone, though.

Most of what we have left from Andrea is great.  We have a lot of amazing traditions, things we came up with together, and things that she brought to the table that added to the way my family handled the holidays and decorating and the kids.  I am eternally grateful to Andrea for giving me so many things that I never thought I would experience.  I have an ability now to go through the house, know what goes where, how to decorate little pieces, make the house look nice, and somehow still feel like I’ve got some semblance of manhood when I’ve finished.

But there are some traditions that I honestly, sincerely, wish she had left the hell alone.  I grew up in the Midwest, and while so many people around the country criticize the middle section of our nation, there’s just so much to appreciate that they don’t understand.  People there are strong.  Their mettle is tested every winter with below-zero wind chills and they get battered by thunderstorms and tornadoes every Spring.  But for every hail storm there’s an appreciation of the beauty of the lightning that accompanies them.  For every tornado there’s the knowledge that comes, where you recognize the temperature drop, the hail, then the eerie calm and greenish-grey clouds just before the funnel forms.  You are strong, you are smart and you are instinctive.  When I was getting ready to head to college, going through the last year of high school, my mother made me help make dinner every night.  She taught me how to make homemade bread; how to bake cookies; how to clean up as you go so you don’t have to clean it ALL up after; how to persevere when things go wrong.  When I got married I already knew how to clean.  With my little brother I’d changed diapers – cloth ones and you have to WASH those, folks.  I learned how to be a good man, holding onto tradition and faith and strength.  Those traits have helped me get through this year.

The holidays are amazing there.  We have Christmas done up, snow on the ground, the trees decorated, presents under the tree, lights everywhere, it’s an event.  We used to visit my Grandma’s house, just a couple miles into town, and you could just feel Christmas.  My youth was filled with cooking . . . turkey and ham in the oven; there was bread dressing; my family: my Mom and Grandma made sugar cookies, Lincoln Logs (peanut butter, coconut, dipped in chocolate); pecan sandies; cinnamon rolls; kolaches; pumpkin and pecan pie; lace cookies, all of it.  They cooked for weeks, the temperature cold enough they put the containers on the back porch and it kept everything fresh.  I don’t have the time to do this.  Neither does my wife’s family.  I can cook, and Thanksgiving I did it all, but the all-encompassing feeling wasn’t there.  We just didn’t feel like we were embracing the holiday.

But there are also odd traditions that they brought to us that I never celebrated, nor did my family, nor my Mom’s Irish relatives.  To me they are excuses to have yet another holiday, something for people with too much time on their hands and too little imagination to take yet another tradition that some people did have and try to force everyone to do it.

My kids came home tonight . . . again . . . and asked if they could put their shoes out.

“It’s Saint Nicholas Day, Dad!”

Now, if you haven’t heard of it, I certainly hadn’t before my wife’s family got involved, the kids put out their shoes and they get candy, coins, oranges, and presents.  Sound familiar?  Oh, wait, it’s a miniature stocking stuffer moment.  It’s another thing I have to remember and yet another strange meadowlark that just started popping up.  I get that some people honor the saint this day.  I get it’s a tradition in some cultures.  Not in ALL cultures.  I can’t keep up.  It’s 9pm, everyone’s going to bed and I have to put shoes out.  Nick has to come put crap in their freaking shoes and I’m still behind on the nightly routine.  It happens every year and it frustrates the hell out of me.

Can we stop with the over-extension of holidays?  Do we have to decorate for Halloween as big and bright as we do for Christmas?  Do we have to take other people’s traditions – cultures that are NOT our own – and dumb them down, castrate them, and apply them to a vanilla-flavored version of their true purpose?  Nick’s coming at Christmas.  He doesn’t need a teaser trailer.  The school does it.  Now we have to do it at home.  Every year, some new tradition starts getting made up because Martha Stewart apparently hasn’t made enough money and people want to make more work for those of us that are just scraping by.  I want my kids to have a good year and amazing traditions.  I don’t feel like I should have them thrust upon me.  What’s next, Festivus for the rest of us?

Now before you all start criticizing me and telling me about the tradition, how your family did it, how it’s a real occasion, I don’t doubt you or any of that.  But it’s not MY tradition, it’s not a tradition everywhere.  So why are you forcing me to follow it by your intense conversation about it with my kids?  Here’s what this succeeds in doing: raising expectations that are already hard for me to meet .  Even when Andrea was here, she made us do this because someone they knew started it.  But I don’t want these traditions, these holidays that others used but not us.  I hate that the amazing week of Christmas that I had with family: food and the smell of baking and feelings of love are being replaced by stuffing candy and junk in shoes without really discussing why the hell you’re doing that in the first place.

St. Nicholas had a day, December the 6th, because that’s when certain cultures celebrated him.  He had his own tradition.  Part of Nick carried over into everything from “Sinter Klaus” to what we know as Santa.

Yet we now have both the shoes . . . AND . . . the stockings, presents, tree, and all of that later on – on December 25th.

Enough already!  And before you give me the “just don’t do it” speech, you tell your kids why they’re the only ones at school who St. Nick skipped last night.  Maybe you haven’t been very good.  Maybe you’re not on the good list and that’s why he skipped your house!  It’s like the old peer pressure from high school except this time I don’t get the happy, dizzy buzz that comes with what they’re forcing down my throat.

I’m trying so hard to survive this year without screwing my kids up completely.  That’s hard enough just in trying to keep them turning in their homework, preventing fights or bad behavior and learning who is trying to help you and who’s just trying to make themselves feel better.  This whole year’s been awful.  Now I add the strange traditions that have nothing to do with my family or how I grew up and suddenly I feel like the train’s derailing again.  I can hear the strange meadow lark singing off key from the rest of the flock.

Yes, I know, this just sounds angry and complaining, but I’m trying to give my kids what I had.  I want them to feel the holidays as I felt them, though I know it’s impossible.  Their Mom’s not here, the woman’s touch isn’t in our house, it’s all gone wrong.

So the worst part of it all is that we did it anyway.  All this complaining, the entire diatribe, and I put out the shoes.  Why?  Because it’s true, I can’t let the kids fall.  Even the smallest little, annoying thing that wouldn’t have been such a big deal last year is expanded now.  Nothing is little.  The tiniest crack can become the biggest chasm because we’re still fumbling around blindly in the darkness.  Each holiday or event is like a light post along the way.  I hate this freaking tradition, partially because I never remember to do it – it’s not in my litany of traditions from my family – partially because it’s yet another thing I have to get right . . . alone.  The kids don’t really care, I know.  They get their sugar high – thanks again for that – and they’re happy.

So here I sit, the only grumpy person in a sea of Rachel Ray’s and Martha’s, bitching that it’s not a “good thing”, only to come to the harsh realization.

It’s me who’s the strange meadow lark.