I took a few days to drive about nine hours away. It wasn’t a trip that was supposed to be for fun. it just wasn’t. It was meant to be stressful, emotional, sad, hopeful, encouraging and depressing all at the same time.
I was determined it wouldn’t be so, though.
This was the trip to take my oldest daughter, Abbi, to college. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t missing her or that I didn’t think things would be hard without her – not physically but emotionally.
People make the mistake sometimes of saying that I’d have to deal with so much more with Abbi not in the house. I’ll be the first to admit that she drove the kids around a lot. She took Noah to therapy every Friday. She picked the kids up from the Extended Day Program at school every day. But a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that Abbi became their surrogate Mom. She didn’t. The first thing I wanted after Andrea, my wife of 18 years, passed away was for Abbi to be a teenager. Sure, she had to grow up insanely fast, but I was determined she’d have more of a childhood than others I’d known who had to take over the household duties when their mother passed away.
So we drove. About a quarter of the way we stopped in Redding, California. There they have a giant walking bridge that is, literally, a sundial. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, architect and designer of some of the most beautiful bridges in the world, the bridge has become a tourist attraction for the city.
We spent about an hour there, getting a burger so that Abbi could have InNOut burger before leaving the state of California.
We arrived at our destination about 1 in the morning on move-in day. It was exhausting, but we’d spent the time wandering around and having fun and it was far more of an adventure than it was a sad and depressing trip.
I pulled up and the college had the traffic managed. They had students that moved all the stuff out of our car into Abbi’s dorm room. They truly made it easy on us. I was a bit dismayed as I looked around me and noticed that there were parents who had shown up with minivans filled to the brim along with a U-Haul attached completely full as well. I looked to our Honda and noticed that we’d filled up the back of the Pilot with Abbi’s stuff . . . an inordinate number of shoes . . . (he typed just to get the ire of his daughter who says there really aren’t that many shoes) and the necessities. Still, there was car after car and trailer after trailer and all I could think was . . . you know you have to move all that stuff back to your home when it’s all said and done, right?
We moved Abbi into the dorms, helped her to unload a bunch of the stuff and then went off to let her do some of the school work and get acclimated.
Hannah, Noah and Sam had all told me how much they’re going to miss their sister. Sure, they told Abbi, too, but not to the degree they’d let on to me. Sam wanted to move to Salem so we could be closer to her. Noah just got quiet . . . which has been his normal stance in the last couple years after losing his Mom. It wasn’t until Friday that Abbi let on that she’s really nervous, too. Nervous because she’s not just living on her own for the first time . . . which she is . . . but nervous because she’s living on her own, in a room with strangers each night, in a new town, in a new setting, surrounded by people not too much like her in some instances, and having to audition for a play and do a term paper . . . all in the same weekend. It’s a lot to overcome any one of those things. She has all of them at once. I went to college in driving distance of home for a weekend. I had the advantage of going there if I got homesick. As the time approached for us to leave her it was finally setting in: Dad’s going.
“You’re not as emotional as the other parents, I’ve noticed” Abbi informed me. “Don’t get me wrong, I totally appreciate that!”
I wasn’t, either. There were parents literally sobbing at the fact they were relinquishing their kid to the big, wide world. I wasn’t. I was sad, a little maudlin, perhaps biting at the kids a little more here and there. Still, I noticed the emotional turmoil the kids whose parents were breaking down felt. I also noticed that Hannah, Noah and Sam had already gotten sad and quiet over her leaving. The last thing she needed was me adding to that. Plus…I’m honestly excited for her. She’s about to embark an amazing journey and go do something she’s totally thrilled to do. That’s worth a ton.
We did more . . . I took the kids to the state fair in Oregon. We rode the Ferris Wheel. Hannah and Sam went on a giant swing that took you in circles. We had funnel cakes. The kids won prizes. It was totally fun, totally different, and just a big adventure. I didn’t want them or Abbi to look at this weekend as a sad occasion. I wanted them to look at it as a great memory. I think, after all this they do.
I am sad, sure, and tonight, as I write, the house is too quiet and the downstairs too empty…but the routine hasn’t changed. I do the same amount of work I did before she left. I watch Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” and realize as I’m about to comment on how stupid it is they act like Network News has reporters who shoot their own stories and realize that Abbi isn’t there to tell any more. I also realize…I can text her and have her watch it online so we can have the same conversation.
I preach and pound into the ground the statement that life is an adventure. I have to practice what I preached. You know what? I think I have.
My daughter informed me of something tonight that I’d never really thought about.
She told me that I, and my wife when she was alive, both gave her something very meaningful: an opinion.
Now, that may seem a bit odd or even slightly self-aggrandizing, but it’s not. You see, we never inflicted an opinion on our daughter and I, for one, never forced mine on her unless it was for her own good. It’s pretty interesting to think about, Abbi, even as a 3 or 4-year-old kid, wouldn’t accept that she couldn’t be part of “adult conversation.” Part of that was bad. When her mother, who loved to express opinions about others sometimes (sometimes, not always, she wasn’t a bad person don’t get that opinion) she didn’t want Abbi around to then repeat that opinion.
But what we did do, something that was honestly second nature to us, was let her have one. Well, not just have an opinion, we let her express it . . . and accepted her opinion as worthwhile.
Kids, you see, are smarter than we give them credit. You can tell me I’m wrong all you want, but the reality is you’d be wrong yourself. Abbi grew up to be smart, certain, confident, and willing to stand by her morals, her opinions, her thoughts and her values regardless of the situation. Tonight, she informed me that our raising her to believe that her opinion counted – because it did – helped her to become what she is today.
Is she finished growing? No, she’s not. Will she change later? Yes.
But at her core, the days of my reading aloud to her, using a different voice for every character of the book Drummer Hoff and memorizing How the Grinch Stole Christmas were all big parts of her upbringing. They allowed her to see it was okay to act like someone else or have fun with material in front of you. You can make a fort and say “hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat” with full authority and verve.
When Abbi auditioned for her college drama department she told them how her father would read books with a different voice for each character. She said how she knew the Grinch by heart and could read the Drummer Hoff book by heart before she could read because how we spent so much time on each page. When they said she was a “born actor” she informed them she was born, she just was encouraged and allowed to do what she loved. To me, they’re the same thing, but not everyone encourages that feeling.
Abbi is now all but grown up. I really can’t say I’d be able to do a better job with her today than I did. Most of what I did raising that little girl was instinct, imprinted in my DNA by two wonderful parents of my own.
Still . . . you wonder when you let them go, as I prep for morning when I put her on a plane, alone, to visit her grandparents in Nebraska, whether you’ve done a good job or not. Today, just for a few hours, she informed me herself that we had.
I worry about the next few weeks. I’ve had a hard time keeping the kids stable and that’s never been something I’ve contended with. It’s not that it was easy…Hannah, my middle child of the four – two girls and twin boys – nearly failed several classes. Noah, one of the twin boys, has had a week where he’s gotten in trouble for being combative with his teachers. Not lashing out, but just refusing to do his work. Abbi, my oldest, is questioning her choices and her confidence. Sam . . . well, he’s become hyper and scatterbrained.
All of these kids are acting completely counter to their real personalities.
Abbi is starting to think she’s made the wrong choice for a college degree and career, even though it’s what she’s wanted forever. She hears her Mom’s voice telling her it’s not stable, she needs to make money, she should have a regular career. Noah is worried about his Grandpa eventually passing away. Sam’s there, too. Hannah . . . she’s missing assignments again and not doing her chores.
And I’m stressed and worried about them, myself, my family . . . all of it.
I told my oldest, and I’ve told the younger ones the same thing . . . their Mom wasn’t always right.
Early in our marriage, and early in our family, after Abbi was born, Andrea went to Pharmacy school. She did want to be a pharmacist, it’s not like it was a random choice. Still, part of her decision was the fact that we weren’t making a bunch of money really, really quickly. She also didn’t want to work . . . I faced that fact and realized she just loved being in school. If she could have been a professional student she’d have done it, but her brain was such that if she wasn’t perfect every time at something you stop and go do something that makes a big financial gain quickly.
I don’t work that way.
My father always wanted us to be successful. But our measure of success was never financial. I’m not digging ditches, but I wasn’t making six figures either. My wife kept trying to get me into a sales job, or law or real estate, something that would require more school and doing more background. With one in school already I couldn’t afford to do that. I had a degree in journalism and I was doing it. She thought there was no way I’d ever be successful.
So I recounted the story to my oldest daughter how her mother and I fought . . . almost constantly after she was born . . . about my career choices. I told her in no uncertain terms: I was always in television. I hadn’t planned on doing anything else, unless somehow Clapton came calling for a rhythm guitarist. Barring that, I’m a photographer and producer. She knew that when she married me, I never really intended on doing anything else, so why was this some major surprise?! She hated that because she wanted success and she wanted it without the long, grueling work to get there. While Andrea had 1,000,000 things amazing about her, she was a results driven person early in our marriage. Didn’t matter how, just get us there. I have the mindset that if you work hard, the best you can, doing what you love, you can’t help but be successful.
The year Andrea graduated pharmacy school I was offered a job in Dallas, Texas as a photographer and producer for a major investigative unit. It was a jump from market 72 to market 8. Andrea was flabbergasted. It took roughly 5-6 years of grueling work, three jobs, ad insertion on basketball games, playing reporter, playing anchor, learning how to be a better photographer, learning how to write from amazing reporters in a market that looked like it was market 25 not 72 but I did it.
Upon our move to Texas I was travelling around the world. My first month I was booked to go to Mexico City. I went to Washington DC in the wake of 9/11. I went to Israel. I met presidential candidates, found pieces of the Space Shuttle Columbia and called over State Patrol officers to guard the charred mission patch of an astronaut sitting in a ditch after the spacecraft broke up over East Texas.
Not long into our time in Texas, Andrea meekly apologized to me for everything she’d said when we were in Omaha and fighting. “I didn’t think you were even thinking of moving ahead,” she told me. “I thought you didn’t know what you were doing. I’m so sorry.” Or words to that effect. Bear in mind, we argued, but we never split. We never thought of divorce or leaving. That same woman would support me when I was exhausted and thought I couldn’t go another step after being up for 32 straight hours working two jobs and playing in a club.
But it’s a lesson to teach my daughter, too. Andrea became a pharmacist partly because it was good money . . . and we moved from Texas to California for the money. We got here . . . and she was miserable. She changed jobs to appease her family so they wouldn’t have to watch the kids so much. Again, I ended up with a management job and travelling to Afghanistan. I thrived where she faltered and it hurt her, though it wasn’t something I could change.
The lesson to my kids, in the middle of their worry about their grandfather, is that you cannot measure success only in financial terms. Neil Gaiman, the author of such amazing books as American Gods and Coraline and Good Omens has said that no job he ever took simply for the money was ever successful. In fact, most times he never saw the money, either. Gain, I told my daughter, is measured in work, happiness, output, and effort. If you’re exhausted but proud of what you’ve done, you’ve succeeded. Yes, you have to be able to eat, but are you getting closer to your goal of doing what you want, or farther away. “Would you be happy being a pharmacist?” I asked Abbi on the couch. She shook her head. “no.” It was quiet, but also an admittance that she was doubting what she’d done.
“It’s okay to fail, and it’s okay to doubt yourself at home,” I told her. “But don’t lose your confidence in yourself. Make mistakes, try new ways of acting and doing things. You’ll fail miserably, sometimes, but own those failures and you’ll still be a success because you won’t make them again.”
I can see that they’re all doubting, hearing their Mom’s voice telling them different things than what I tell them in their heads. Hard as it is, I have to remind them . . . their Mom’s not here anymore. She may whisper into your brain from wherever she is, but she can’t make your decisions for you. She isn’t treading the same footsteps we did, her steps stopped a long way back. Our path changed, our lives are different, and we have to do what we think is best.
It’s a hard lesson . . . but a lesson nonetheless that their parents aren’t immortal, and sometimes, they disagreed and aren’t always right.
We’ve entered the time of my oldest daughter, Abbi’s, life where we start looking at colleges and filling out what’s called a “common application”. This is a collegiate application that is basically like a form letter that most the colleges will accept. That way kids aren’t filling out applications for lots of other colleges.
Part of that application process is a requirement that they write an essay. In it, the student has to give an indication as to why they want to go into the major they’re choosing. Abbi decided that she wanted to go into drama, which wasn’t an easy decision for her. She’s always loved it and years ago said that she wanted to go into acting, writing, directing, and drama. When she did, her mother convinced her that the unknown was . . . well . . . unknown. Pharmacy or medical school – those were the logical choices for someone Abbi’s age.
When Andrea passed away, she was still convinced that Andrea’s advice was the most sound. She’d started looking at schools for pharmacy, even considering Nebraska, as it would be close to her grandparents. It was something that she thought was logical. On top of that, it was safe.
But along the way she made another decision. I knew about it, we’d had lots of discussions.
This weekend Abbi asked me to look at her essay. The requirement was that they write about a life changing event, something that helped them make the decision to go to their school and have that major. Abbi had what you might call an obvious choice, but in the midst of it all, she talked about something else. She talked about how she’d resigned herself to be in medicine, that her mother had told her acting was a good hobby but not worth doing full time. She talked about how she was convinced this was the best way to go.
But it wasn’t just her Mom’s death. When Andrea passed we had to leave our house. While that was something that Abbi was satisfied with, where she saw her mother around every corner, knowing we had to leave, with only a month’s time was rough. Add to that she realized how stressed I was with having to leave my job and suddenly everything was in a tizzy. We had to change schools for her. She had to make new friends.
But as much of a maelstrom as Abbi’s life had become, it also brought her life into focus. The other advantage – being with my father and mother. While my father is very private and I don’t write much here . . . I feel safe in saying that he steered her toward the focus not the storm. He told her the dreams you don’t pursue are the ones you’ll never realize and always wonder about. She’d been toying with the idea all this time, and I told her I’d stand by whatever she wanted to do. By the end of summer she was convinced. Safe wasn’t smart it was . . . well, safe. But she was looking at the world the way Andrea did – sacrifice your dreams for sure stability. Give up your dream for the money that comes with a career. It’s opposite of how my father and I think. We both always thought if you work as hard as you can and learn all you can about your chosen path then you’ll be successful.
Success, you see, isn’t measured in dollars and cents or in the hours you work. It’s measured in happiness. Abbi closed her essay saying how she came to the realization that it’s OK to do what makes you happy.
You only have one life, after all, and she’s young enough that if she doesn’t make it or isn’t happy . . . she can do something else.
And she can know that we will all always be here. We’re stronger together than when we’re apart.
No, it’s not a diatribe about the untimely (or is it timely?) demise of the band Chumbawumba. But it was a headline to get your attention.
I got to thinking over the weekend, particularly since I’ve been pretty sick, about whether I spend an inordinate amount of time talking here about how I met Andrea and not our married life or our lives and how the kids came to be, etc. Under the blankets, over medicated and trying to reduce the fever and the icepick-stabbing pain in my forehead I got on the blog here to see if there are more instances of one than the other.
And there are. Not by a radical amount, but sure, there are.
There are a couple reasons for this, and they’re fairly simple. First, the only era in which I was able to take regular pictures of my wife are from when we first started going out. She was at her “smallest” (her term, not mine) but even then she fought the camera. It’s funny, because she was in TV, but have a still picture and she would sit and critique it for hours, literally. I decreased the amount slightly as I got into marriage and then with Abbi’s birth. She hated that she’d gotten heavier after having a first child but I never noticed. Andrea took to wearing what was fashionable then and it was overalls. I know this sounds crazy, but I loved seeing her in those. Something about them just made me smile and my heart race…even after having a child. Nothing about her changed so radically that I thought less of her that way.
Hannah was harder. After Hannah, I nearly lost her. She bled out on the operating table. They took the baby one way and then took Andrea another and I was literally standing in an operating room, blood on the floor, wondering what I was supposed to do. Pictures were taken but I don’t hardly remember them. The recovery was so hard and horrible I couldn’t really think what to do about anything but getting Hannah and Andrea well.
The twins . . . she carried two babies. She had such an insecurity about weight already that having two babies inside made her even more self-conscious. After they were born she got Bells-Palsey and it never recovered. She thought her smile was everything – but I tried to tell her that her smile was more than her mouth and her teeth. I loved how she smiled with her whole face and whole body. When she smiled she was radiant.
And I think that’s also why the early relationship comes through most. She smiled all the time, and so did I. It’s not something I did much, I’d never met anyone who made me feel like I was worth the attention. When things would go bad in my house – when we’d argue or she’d get jealous . . . when she fell into clinical depression – I wouldn’t think of leaving her. I thought about those early days: when the thought of seeing her at work made my heart race. When we woke up and realized we had to leave each other’s side and didn’t want to . . . those were the days that got me through the rough ones.
So, yeah. They’re burned into my brain. The happiest memories . . . and the darkest . . . those stick with you. I remember vivid details of meeting, dating, making love to, and falling in love with my wife. I also remember every single detail of her last hours. I remember visiting Valla’s Pumpkin Patch with our young daughter as much as I remember the time I spent as a five-year-old in the hospital alone because my Mom couldn’t stay in the room with me. I remember meeting my brother at Houston’s Mission Control and the family trip we took there before leaving Texas as vividly as I do the moment she left the earth.
So those college days, tubthumping and crazy, stick in my brain. You know how they tell you in dark times to go to that “happy place?” That was mine. Now they’re not necessarily that place, they’re just happy memories.
But I remember all those college days because they got me through the darker days.
It’s hard, in the wake of tragedy, not to hold on to the last ties to your past. I don’t mean to make it sound like we had some massive, tragic event like those who lost loved ones in war or a terrorist attack. But loss is loss, no matter how you cut it, and losing someone with a deep connection is tragic by any definition of the word. Watching your life start to fall to pieces and shift, spectacularly, is so abrupt that you cannot help, as I’ve done all too often here, but reflect and grasp at the past as it starts to get more and more distant from you.
This was the situation for my oldest daughter, Abbi, when she made the decision – quite painfully it seems – to pursue drama even as just a future Senior in high school. Abbi, after all, fought, clashed, grunted at, and ruffled against her mother on more occasions than I have fingers and toes to count. That doesn’t mean she didn’t love nor ignored her lessons or advice, however wrong. The biggest arguments were likely because they were so much alike. Abbi has the same drive, pride, and push that her mother, my dear wife Andrea, had all through her life. Abbi is furious if she gets a lower grade than she’s striving for. She’s aggravated when someone tells her she can’t do something. More than anything, she wants to succeed, not be successful, but to succeed.
So when her mother told her over and over and over again that she was silly for wanting to go into drama or acting or directing, screenwriting, whatever . . . she listened. The little pieces of her mother that listened to the logic and the drive to make money over being happy was too strong. Losing that Mom in the middle of the buildup to college was a catalyst that started a reaction she hadn’t really been willing or able to face a year ago. The tendency, and the sheer desire to be honest, to try and “do what she would have wanted” is strong, particularly when you miss that person so very much. It’s not even like losing your brother or Grandmother or . . . your spouse. It’s losing your mother, one of those guiding lights and prolific influences on your life.
Even if she was still alive, coming to terms with the fact that your Mom is wrong is a horribly hard thing to bear. When you’re a teenager, there’s still some of the thought that your parents are invincible. The immortality and wisdom you’ve foisted upon them since you were able to string words together still has its tug. Doesn’t matter how much the hormone changes push you to rebel, there’s still the 4-year-old who sees your Mom and Dad as the person you run to when things just don’t go right. When Abbi struggled with “the rest of her life” over the last few months she really did feel torn apart. She kept struggling with where to go to school. She wanted to be closer to family, so looked at Nebraska. She wanted to be what her Mom told her she wanted to be: a pharmacist or doctor or scientist. Not some broke artist living with 3 people in an apartment in Soho.
But today her world took a paradigm shift.
Yesterday I wrote about her letter, the decision to take Advanced drama and try to embrace what in her heart she’s always wanted: to go into a dramatic field. There was still the rest of her schedule remaining, though, and AP biology and Physiology . . . they all remained. There was still that last tie to the safety net; the last connection to what her Mom wanted. But she had to let it go. The schedule she had to take was only possible if she shifted everything . . . classes had to be dropped in order to retain the drama classes.
“It was the last grip I had on the safety net,” she told me when she showed me next year’s schedule. Her counselor was worried. “Mom wanted me to have something that was stable,” was her line, and I could see the internal struggle going on within her little head.
“I get that,” told her. I really did. “But Mom’s not here, kiddo. I wish I could tell you she was right, but I never agreed with her philosophy . . . and she doesn’t have to face whether she’s right or wrong. She got to pressure you with this and leave, sticking you with what she wanted and not being able to argue your side of things.”
“I know,” she said meekly, “and I let it go. It was just really hard.”
It’s a harsh thing to say to your daughter, and it may sound a little angry – and it is to a degree. You get angry when you’re grieving. The fact remains that she did leave. Maybe, like so many other people tell me they’ve seen, she’s watching up there and trying to help and influence those who need her help, but here we are, precisely when we need her most, and she’s gone. I loved Andrea desperately, but we’re left to stumble through our lives while she gets to be at peace. I’m tremendously happy that she’s no longer suffering. She doesn’t have the constant pain in her knees. She doesn’t have to struggle losing the weight she couldn’t shed. She doesn’t have to fight her depression or deal with arguments with her parents any more.
It’s really a bit unfair for my daughter to have to try and follow the plan of her mother when she neither wants it nor believes in it. It’s too easy to resign yourself to doing what you don’t want for the cause of “doing it for Mom” without realizing that you’re going to hate your job and your life for every part of it. Do I wish I was a touring musician? Yes. Is it my Mom’s fault? No. I made choices . . . ones that included marrying Andrea and having Abbi . . . and I wouldn’t change either one. I found a way to be creative and to record and to have a chance at playing music with my brother. That’s worthwhile. 90% of your day is spent working, so why should you be miserable doing it? Sure, she’ll be slinging coffee or busing tables . . . but it’s all with the goal of doing what she wants in mind. That’s one of the amazing stops off the road she deserves.
Now, Abbi’s looking at colleges that cater to what she wants to do. For the first time, she’s considering New York or the East Coast. She knows I’ll visit and talk with her every day. She’s so talented that there’s no reason she won’t succeed. She’s a better writer than I am and she enjoys acting like I enjoy playing music.
It’s so easy to keep that grip on the past. It’s the bravest thing in the world to let it go.
I used to be a man in control. It was my job, my life, my memories . . . and most of all, my emotions. I mean, I had my hard times. Marriage isn’t always easy, I knew that. Nothing as amazing and worthwhile as Andrea, my late wife, was easy. My marriage was amazing, fun, playful, stressful, difficult, all of it. When I would see photos, the pictures of our honeymoon, dating, marriage, all of it were memories that we would occasionally talk about and go through and at the time we’d be really happy. It made me miss the amazing, great times, and I’d reminisce with her.
But now that control is something I seem to have a harder time holding onto. Today was a strange day for that reason. My sons woke up being more than a little obstreperous. One would poke at the other and then at their sisters. On top of that I had to clean up the house, something that seems to get to me over and over again. The week seems to build up the mess, stress, and downright temper and just build up until Saturday and Sunday and start all over again. Today was the peak of it all, I had to clean up the house room by room. My middle daughter continues to fight doing her chores and screaming and hollering at me about the fact that I hadn’t let her go to this Friday’s concert.
Part of the needs of the day included eliminating a bunch of paperwork from years past. I’d been more than a bit upset, and this was no small amount of anger. My back hurt, my legs were sore, I was sweating something fierce, and I was wanting nothing more than to tear the kids a new one every time they started at each other – none of them realizing that I had to do my weekend work and their chores as well. Before I started looking through the papers I had already started yelling at the kids. Hannah was asking me constantly to go outside or make S’mores or start a fire in our fire pit. I wasn’t very happy about the fact that they wanted nothing better than to go out or do more things on the weekend with me and I’ve got to vacuum, wash clothes, do the dishes Hannah didn’t, all of it.
I ended up having to tell her and her 3 siblings that we’d get to do so many more things on the weekends if they would all do their assigned chores. As it is is now, I do what I can until near falling down from exhaustion during the week and then we get to the weekend and I’m having to catch up to zero, not get ahead of the things that should have been fixed before the week was over. I even told the kids that: we’d do far more things every weekend if I wasn’t just running around doing their chores and my own at the same time.
Then in the middle of all of it, I started shredding all the old tax returns that were more than ten years old in some instances. In the middle of it was a file I hadn’t realized we had. In it was a ton of stuff from Andrea’s high school and college years. A picture of her getting her diploma from high school. In the middle of all of it was a letter of acceptance from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s just a silly letter, I know it. But I find this piece of paper in the middle of talking with my daughter about where she’s going to college and where she wants to live, what she wants to do with her life, all of it. I look at the letter and realize that she was a heartbeat away from going to UCLA for her freshman year – or worse, just before our dating to American University on the East Coast. This stupid letter, something I nearly shredded with all the student loan paperwork and everything, etc. This letter was the major stroke in her life that brought her to me. I know that’s a lot of emotion and memory to place on a sheet of paper, but it’s not really something I can help.
I’ve describe the memories to other people as a wave – a washing over of just a confusing conglomeration of emotions that hits me and I feel and do things I never thought I’d feel. I smile while feeling the roughest of emotions that burn in the pit of my chest. I hurt and love her at the same time. It’s not the best of things to have when you’re already burning with anger and frustration over my kids. The result is my being depressed and angry at the same time. My kids ask if I’m going to build a fire and make treats – something I didn’t ever say I would do – and I start to go off on them, maybe more than they even deserve. It’s not nice, it’s definitely not pleasant, and I wish I could say it’s the first time I’ve done it but I’d be wrong.
That damn piece of paper – I know it was the piece of paper that completely changed all our lives. But what if it hadn’t happened? What if we’d not met would she still be here? The world would still be bright. The beautiful, fun woman would still be out there somewhere, maybe, and I could have sought her out and found her, maybe all over again, maybe for the first time. I know I can’t change that and it could easily have been exactly the same. This could have been a fixed point in time, something unable to change, a thing that’s destined to happen, that cannot be forced to change. So many things are good as a result of it: I have the kids, the biggest thing; I have a great job that I would never have had if I hadn’t gotten the confidence to do this from her.
I realized this weekend, too, that I have to just buck up and do all this. It’s not raising the kids that’s stressful or bothersome to me. For me, raising the kids is the easy part. No, the behavior problems aren’t easy or fun. The fights are frustrating. The laziness kills me. But at the end of the day, my Mom cleaned up and pushed us harder and harder to clean up and do our chores. I can’t just let it happen. I have to do it and make them do it with me. I have to offer up consequences and follow through on them.
I see the paper and I think if she remembered it in her time. I wonder if she thought that a simple letter from an admissions department set up the rest of her life – a life that was far too short.
I wonder if she remembered what brought us to here. I was sad about where things were . . . until things like that letter come up . . . until I remember that she was mine. It’s not something I can change, and I’m not sure if I could if I wanted to.
I’ve eluded to this before but one of the losses that weighs heavily on me nightly is the loss of companionship. It’s funny I feel that way because I never thought I’d be one that missed that interpersonal connection.
When I went to college I missed being around my family and never realized how close we actually were until I wasn’t around them every day. There was no internet at this time and the idea that you could call them from anywhere but your house was just absurd – the stuff of Captain Kirk not cellular calling. My solution was to go to the “Bell” store at the mall and buy a refurbished telephone. It was a little black number that I thought was glossy and cool and fit my pseudo-musician persona.
By the time I’d met Andrea, I was feeling independent even if I wasn’t. Leaving high school from a small town where everyone knew everything about you; knew your business; had ideas who you should like, love, date, have infatuation for, etc.; and had expectations for what you should be was something that weighed heavily on someone like me. I was someone who refused to conform even if that meant isolating myself. When I left for college, the idea that I could walk down campus, grow a beard or even learn to play the guitar were amazing. I felt very confident that being scruffy, lanky, screwball single boy from a small town was working for me.
I had no idea what I was missing.
At that time, Andrea was a social animal. She had a fake ID. She drank with her sorority sisters and frat brothers. She wore brand new clothes from Express and made herself up just to go out and drink at the bar. Her hair alone took her over an hour to get ready. A far cry from me, who didn’t shave, had long hair, and scared away a group of Jehova’s Witnesses when I answered the door in my Hendrix t-shirt with my Strat hanging off my shoulder.
The night I realized what I was missing is actually burned into my consciousness, and I almost blew her off. March 29th, 1991. I remember, because I had volunteered to work late with a colleague because both of us wanted to sit in the Newsroom and watch the George Foreman/Evander Holyfield fight without paying for the pay-per-view. By the time the fight had hit hard and heavy it was becoming clear it wasn’t the fight of the century that the hype had led us to believe. About midway through the newsroom phone rang. That was unusual, understand, because we were a 6pm only newscast and the newsroom was usually vacant so calling that late would only happen if someone from the town was clueless or someone knew we were there.
Andrea had gone out drinking with her friends and had actually asked my colleague to come along. Not me, a colleague. I didn’t mind, though I was a hair jealous but loathe to admit it. When I answered it was her, already having had a few, asking if the fight was over.
“…all but over, I suppose. Not as amazing as we thought,” was my reply.
“Why don’t you come with us?” was her answer. I knew I wasn’t the first choice, so I said so: “you mean _____. I can see if he wants to come have a drink.”
“No . . . why don’t you both come? I’m talking to you, not him.”
My colleague (who I’m not naming because I don’t want to put names that are not family in this blog) was watching me as I had the conversation. I asked him if he wanted to go.
“Why not? We didn’t pay for the fight, and it’s kinda lame anyway.”
My biggest worry was getting into the bar. Like I said, it was March of 1991. “But I’m not 21 yet. I can’t get in.”
“Neither am I,” she said. “I have an ID. You don’t? Forget about it, they’re not carding at the door anyway.”
They weren’t. So I went, to a college hangout near her campus, and hung out with a bunch of people I didn’t know and who probably didn’t care to know me. I was petrified, wondering what possessed me to accept this invitation. Then Andrea saw me as I walked into the bar. She had on a sort of tweed jacket, with flecks of red so it was a brighter, obviously female-inspired look with dark brown corduroy patches on the sleeves. She had on these brown silk pants that flowed behind her when she walked, her hair newly cut in a bob that fell just below her neck and framed her face. She had a beer in one of those milky-clear Solo plastic cups and rushed up cheering at the top of her lungs, arms wide in an apparent effort to give a hug. I moved instinctively, though begrudgingly, so that she’d have easier access to our mutual friend only to find her veering away from him and making a bee-line for me.
“I’m so glad you came! See! I told you they’d let you in. Nothing to worry about.”
She hugged me, sort of falling into my arms as I put mine around her back, laying her head on my shoulder a little, lingering longer than normal, but not long enough for me. It was so sweet and disarming. She put her arm around me, leading me to the table where they had innumerable empty pitchers and several full glasses of beer. I took one and looked up to see her looking at me. There was a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, her teeth full and visible through the red lipstick she wore then.
I remember staying until close, 1am, and saying how I had to go. I’d asked if she needed a ride home, but she was close and wasn’t worried.
“I’m so glad you came, it really made me happy,” she said.
“I’m really glad I came too. But you didn’t want me here. You wanted _____.”
“I asked him, yes, but when you guys got here, I hugged you.”
She gave me a small kiss on the cheek, that infectious giggle of hers playing out as she looked me in the eye, and turned around to walk out the door in front of me, dancing a little as she walked out. I was in a daze. I don’t even remember how I got home, I really don’t. I must have re-lived every conversation, every thought, every interaction from the night a hundred times. I was just bewildered.
It wasn’t the only time she’d thrust me into her world, a time that should have been so very uncomfortable. We had started dating already when she wanted me to attend her sorority formal. It was a crazy event, something that supposedly had a secret location in order to prevent drinking by the Greek attendees. So of course most people knew where it was at. We, on the other had, had decided to rent a motel room with her three roommates so that we could go to the lobby, get on the shuttle bus and come back to the room when it was all over, drinking whatever we wanted on the way there and back. Andrea came out with her dress unzipped asking for help. Underneath, she wore this white, lacy piece of lingerie that had me simply trembling. As I grabbed for the zipper she looked over her shoulder saying “don’t get any ideas, Dave, I wore this so I wouldn’t be tempted. It’s harder than hell to get out of, so you’re cuddling tonight and that’s all!” I’d say I was angry, but it was almost sexier and I knew it. It drove me crazy.
They sang some sort of song EVERY person on the bus knew. Their brother frat was a known party organization and they were as fully obnoxious as ever. I was amazed this world existed. I had gone all through school staring at people like this and was totally absorbed by how crazy it all was. I didn’t drink much, it wasn’t my thing and I hated losing control to that degree. Andrea knew I was nervous and stayed by me all night. She’d helped me get ready, bought me a tie, and just disarmed me to the point I could be comfortable. I was listening to some music and she overheard it through the headphones.
“It’s Brubeck. “Theme from Mr. Broadway” it’s my favorite tune of his.”
“He’s from Northern California, you know, where I grew up. I love his stuff.”
I was floored. It seemed so opposite of who she was. This girl liked Morrissey and Toad the Wet Sprocket. She went to James Taylor concerts. Brubeck?
When we arrived I knew why I’d avoided Greek life. The dinner hadn’t started, we’d only gotten to the salad when the obnoxious frat guy who was next to me cajoled his date to drink more beer. She was young . . . insanely young . . . and it was clear she was looking a little green already.
“It’ll be alright. We’ll loosen you up for tonight right?” I didn’t have to read between the lines to know what he was loosening her up for. He was as subtle as a land mine. His plan backfired, though. Within ten minutes, just after putting dressing on the salad, the poor girl, a freshman and first-timer who was amazed to have a date to the formal, passed out face-first in her salad. Full-on, Italian oils and spices in her hair and all. The guy shouted in anger that he wasn’t getting laid tonight, leaving me to lift the poor girl out of the leafy greens. When Andrea asked what I was doing, I told her what happened. As she was angrily looking for the kid’s house mates to make a complaint, one of Andrea’s roommates came running up saying “Oh my God, _________ is dancing so hard on the dance floor her dress is falling off and her boobs are hanging out!!!!”
A year prior I’d have run screaming from the place, looking for a way out. Instead, I checked to make sure the girl next to me wasn’t sick and Andrea took my hand for the dance floor. I’ve said before that I make music to avoid dancing. For Andrea, it wasn’t an option. At some point in that night, they played “Wonderful Tonight”, and we held each other close while feeling the music. My inability to socialize, to actually work my way through a situation like this, was gone. She made it all go away and told people only that I was wonderful and she loved spending time with me. My goal wasn’t to get out of the party as fast as I could but to make it last as long as possible, to get out of my suit and into my pajamas and lay next to her in the bed.
That night I was so enamored with her I kissed her, for the cameras, in the motel room, friends and PDA be damned. I was almost giddy with laughter when her sexy lingerie plan backfired.
“You know how hard it is to pee in this thing!” I had no idea at the time, but it was a “body suit”, something that covered her top to bottom, sort of like a teddy or the like. Problem was she had to unclasp it every time she needed to use the bathroom, and drinking inordinate amounts of beer in the evening made for lots of frustrations trying to reach down and undo the lace in the dark.
From that moment . . . the point where she’d laid in my arms and talked, all night, annoying her roommates with her giggling and talking, I was hooked. She always wondered, and I’m not sure I ever told her, but that night, the night we slept together but didn’t “sleep together” was one of the most amazing nights I’ve ever had. She was angry and frustrated that she had to deal with this crazy piece of lingerie. She was frustrated that we’d both had enough to drink we were beyond sleepy and feeling so many emotions it drove us nuts.
It was that moment that I realized I wanted to wake up with her next to me like that every night. You can say all you want, question my motives, tell me I’m wrong, but it wasn’t the day I bought the ring or asked her to marry me. It was that night, in a motel room with six other people, holding her in my arms, that I decided I needed her to stay with me forever.
I miss that. I’m remembering nights as far back as college and the feel, the comfort, the muscle memory of her laying there next to me is still there. It’s the cause of my stress, the pull on my heart and the ache in my soul that I feel every night as I finally just feel my eyes droop and the jump in my blood pressure when I wake and think it was just a crazy dream only to see it’s the reality, I had lived the dream for 20 years up to this point.
I miss her, the social animal and public consciousness that pulled me out of my shell. I know I’ve said this, but she made me a better man. I’m slogging through life right now, not just because I miss her, but because, damn her, I miss the companionship. She pulled me out of my isolated bliss and has ruined me for the rest of my life. Now I see a beautiful woman on the street and still feel guilty for looking and can’t figure out why I have the guilt.
It’s that tug, the pull on my body that she still has. The muscle memory won’t give way, like so many clasps on white lacy lingerie.