After writing a long post on our trip to the Calaveras County Big Trees for Good Enough Mother, I did exactly what I said I wasn’t going to do last weekend . . .
I took my oldest daughter to the movies.
I could say there’s some major, gigantic difference, that I’m not being a hypocrite, and I’d be truthful in that. Abbi, my oldest, took the other three kids – her sister and twin brothers – to the movies yesterday while I worked. (Pulled a Saturday shift…but I can take another day off this week.) I told them last weekend I wasn’t going to the movies due to the cost and the fact we needed to get out of the house. That’s why the trip to the Big Trees.
But today I took Abbi, my oldest, to the movies. It wasn’t because the other 3 didn’t deserve to go. I could claim it was a reward for watching those three while I worked all day yesterday – and it kind of was. I could make the claim that she’s going into theater and drama and she, therefore, loves these kinds of things. I could easily, legitimately, say all these things. That wouldn’t be reality.
Reality is that I took her because . . . I won’t get to share near as many nights as before with my oldest. I do an equal number of things with each kid . . . Hannah loves music and I took her to see the Who. I take her to ice-cream and we go on walks together. We play guitar and I help her record the songs she writes.
The boys have varying interests. Noah likes stop-motion so I watch things with him about Ray Harryhausen and analyze the original Clash of the Titans and Wallace and Gromit. We read stuff together. Sam loves Sci-Fi and Doctor Who and we talk about that and go see things and watch it together. That’s each one’s love.
But Abbi and I have seen movies since she was little. When she was 4 I took her to the IMAX theater at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and it had a 3D movie about fish. I still remember her, gigantic Elton John-looking glasses on her head, trying to grab at the fish coming out of the two-story movie screen. When Monsters, Inc. came out she had to see it because the little girl looked like her sister, Hannah. (She did, too. Hannah and “Boo” had a striking resemlbance) As a result, this year she saw Monsters University with the other kids. When Prometheus came out and it got the press of being Ridley Scott’s first Sci-Fi film in years she had to see it. I took her to opening night.
So on the last weekend before she takes the plunge, heads out to college, and lives with two other girls in a dorm room and begins an entirely new part of her life . . . I took her to the movies. Just one last time. She’d been dying to see Elysium because we’d both seen the movie District 9 by the same director. It wasn’t Matt Damon or Jodie Foster, it was the art of it for her. She loved how realistic it was and how great an actor Damon is and how brilliant Sharito Copely acted in the film.
I loved that one more time . . . just one . . . I got to go to the movies with my daughter before she’s more Abbi, the adult than Abbi my little girl. She hasn’t been that little girl for awhile now, and that’s something I wish I could have changed. Losing her mother to pneumonia that quickly affected all of us. It affected her, I think, more than even she wants to imagine. But if I had any influence on her life, I like to think and hope that telling her to do what she loves as long as she’s smart and does it well is the greatest influence. I have always told my kids they’re smart. They have brains filled with nearly as much useless information as I do – just haven’t seen as much – and that isn’t always a bad thing.
There could be a thousand different reasons for any number of things. For her today may have just been the movies, too. For me, though, it was one more Abbi/Daddy day before it all changes.
She’ll always be my daughter, my little girl. I just wanted one more trip to the pictures before it’s clear she’s not little any more.
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.
No, this isn’t a commercial for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs the movie, either. It’s singing praises of my daughter.
Yes, I said praises. Just because I often speak of hardship, problems, grief, frustration, and anger I can also talk about love, life, concern, empathy and . . . well, pride I guess.
As long as I can remember I’ve been an oddball of a human being. I’m not complaining about that, I’d never have it any other way. In a visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I should have been thoroughly excited by the fact that the Georgia O’Keefe or Manitou galleries were in walking distance. For the record, I do love O’Keefe’s stuff, and peeked into the Manitou on the way by. But my highlight was seeing the Chuck Jones gallery.
Yeah, I admit it. Chuck Jones. The Looney Toons guy.
I was geeking out about original paintings by Dr. Seuss. Animation cells and etchings by the animator Bill Melendez for the old Peanuts cartoons. (I even got an etching . . . called the gallery after I got home)
I misspent years of my youth, unable to run or jump quite as much as my older brother, at home due to asthma. I wasn’t an invalid, I went outside, I played, I just couldn’t play quite as much. So instead I watched television and read books. Lots of books. I also love Looney Toons. I also saw Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers because they were in syndication. They were on the television in the hours I was at home. That was humor.
It was timing.
You see, even Steven Spielberg, in an interview about Chuck Jones, said that his comic timing, in every movie from Jurassic Park to ET the Extraterrestrial admitted that he learned timing from watching Jones’ cartoons. Not The Method and not from someplace like the NYU Film School or the Actors’ Studio. He learned from a guy with a goatee, straw hat, and a Bugs Bunny complex.
So I have lived this life. I love good timing and good storytelling. My favorite writer is Dickens – the same author most kids hate in High School. My favorite television writer is Steven Moffat – not for Doctor Who (thought he episode Blink is unbelievable) but for his work on Sherlock, and Jekyll and the movie Tin Tin. It’s a tale, woven and played through the script and the direction. Timing, again, whether comic, horrific, or dramatic is insanely important.
So how does this relate to my daughter? She grew up with those very same influences. We watched those old Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny cartoons. She gets tongue-tied and she says “hmm…pronoun trouble.” (If you don’t get the reference, look it up.) She quotes Groucho as easily as she would Brad Pitt in today’s world. So she grew up with her father making silly Bullwinkle voices and quoting Monty Python’s Flying Circus and can jokingly quote the Dead Parrot Sketch saying things about climbing down the curtain to join the choir invisible . . . it’s a late bird. She loves the cleverness of buying an argument and the sublime puns of Chico Marx answering Groucho when he says “I’m talking Dollars, Taxes!”
“That’s where my friend lives . . . Dollas Taxes . . . ” (say it out loud. You’ll get the joke)
We went and saw a play in New York that was insane in its comedic timing, particularly when the jokes went wrong and she adored it.
So when Abbi, my oldest, got the chance to be assistant director of a comedic play . . . about a bunch of actors trying to do a play . . . I actually believe, to a degree, that the drama director gave her the duty because Abbi had that comic timing. Perfect…comic…timing.
Tonight was opening night, and because it’s a Thursday and notoriously bad for ticket sales, we all went. School night and all.
Now, before you all complain, yes I know the play/movie Noises Off which originally starred Carol Burnett was PG-13. I also knew that a girl spent a good part of the play parading around in her underwear. I also remind you all that most of today’s television has far worse than what this play contained. My kids weren’t appalled by it.
We went having intentionally not seen the movie (Abbi asked us not to watch it first) and walked in with an open mind. One character of the play was in the audience behind us. The self-reflexive nature a slow burn that made us laugh, but only just started to simmer when Act I was completed. I was laughing about the prop at the center being a plate of sardines, but that was a chuckle.
Then came Act II.
Abbi, you see, choreographed Act II. She told us in advance and she was almost biting her nails as she came up between acts to thank us for coming opening night.
Then the curtain came up.
And we laughed. All four of us laughed . . . crying we were laughing so hard. As I watched the action . . . behind the set, the same actors trying to act out the play they rehearsed in Act I, Abbi had choreographed a menagerie of props and a subtlety of activities the likes of which might require more than one viewing for me to have seen it all. The actors trying to pantomime whispering in front of us, the audience while a supposed play went on behind the fake set was intricate, crazy, and required . . . timing. In the slapstick pratfalls I saw Stan Laurel with his bawling face. I saw Harpo Marx and his insane pranks played on the unknowing woman in Duck Soup. I saw Dick Van Dyke tripping over the ottoman at his Los Angeles home.
God help me, I saw Chuck Jones.
There’s a line from Spielberg that tells it perfectly:
“It’s not the point where the Coyote leaps off the cliff and plummets to the ground. It’s the fact he floats, his head sticking out of the puff of smoke . . . and that moment. The moment of cognition where his foot feels nothing but air and he realizes it’s about to happen…then falls the inevitable fall. That’s timing, and Chuck Jones perfected it.” (It’s not actually a direct quote, I’m remembering, but it’s close!)
That was what I saw last night. I know why Abbi was nervous. There were eight actors . . . eight egos . . . on the stage. Every person had to hit their mark, every prop had to be in place, all the pratfalls had to go off without a hitch. And she did it. The Act felt like it was five minutes long it made us all laugh so hard . . . and I was a little bit worried after the first Act since I felt it was a bit slow and the actors a bit hesitant. But this . . . this was like watching One Man, Two Guv’nors in New York . . . though I admit, not Tony caliber actors. Not yet.
Chuck Jones used to have saying: “we all go through life hoping and thinking we’re Bugs Bunny, but in the end, we’re all really Daffy Duck.”
But tonight . . . my little girl had her Bugs Bunny moment.
One of the most difficult things of trying to be both parents is pushing and fighting against the nature of being a guy and a Dad. That means when things go wrong, my natural instinct is to try and fix what’s wrong.
But that doesn’t work when it’s a teenage girl who has the problem.
I’m not belittling her problems, I’m saying, frankly, that I have to put on a totally different hat and change my mindset. Completely. Even then I don’t really get it right.
Abbi, you see, has taken on the job of assistant director for the school’s spring play. Not a musical, but a play. This would normally be plenty of stress, but add to that the fact they did auditions and every kid under the sun wanted Abbi to tell them what their chances were and she’s like Atlas carrying the earth on her shoulders. Add to this the fact that they wouldn’t leave her alone even when she was at her Grandfather’s funeral . . . and she was a bit of a mess.
Add to this the fact that she was studying grief and death in her psychology class today and she’s even worse off. She needed to talk to somebody . . . somebody her own age, not her Dad. But those somebodys were wrapped up in their own world and anger and God knows what else. It’s times like this I’m glad to be a guy. Something goes wrong? You hit them. Maybe it’s a harder tackle during a pickup football game. Maybe you just walk up and shove them against a locker. Regardless, it’s there . . . and then it’s done.
Girls don’t do that. Girls work emotions and turn their backs and . . . let’s face it, where guys are told they’re “emotionally unavailable” and “hold it in” they don’t use emotions to get back at others.
This is the world my oldest, who has more of my and my father’s mindset then the mindset of others, has entered. Sure, her skin needs to thicken up, but then . . . so does everyone’s.
But the hardest thing for me to contend with is hearing “Mom would know what to do.” This is hard not because it’s true – and it is. But because it’s also not true. How do you tell your daughter, or son, or whomever, that their mother, who very well would have had all the answers for this situation, may not have had it either? I know Andrea would have had advice for Abbi . . . but I also know that more than a few times Andrea made situations far worse than better. Situations that called for more tact and less attack would get the complete opposite reaction from her. Where I loved her being forward and up front, others . . . well they didn’t love it.
All I can do is say what I think . . . and not say other things I think. Sometimes time is all there is to heal the wounds, one at a time. They all heal at a different pace. Some are deeper and have a visible scar that may fade, but never disappear. Others are there and gone in a day or two. That’s what she’s dealing with. She’s been pummeled over the last couple weeks, by illness, cancer of her grandfather, illness of her grandmother, and seeing the loss of her mother all over again. Add eighteen-year-old girls in the drama club adding, well, drama to the grief and she just couldn’t take any more of the beating. Rather than the sympathy of her peers she got “rule one is don’t talk about fight club!”
I never said it would be easy. Hell, it hasn’t been easy. But it was supposed to be a little easier on them . . . and that’s what makes it hardest on me. So you’ll excuse me if I go beat a few chords out of my guitar for awhile to lessen the blows on myself.
My son, Noah, has shown yet again just how innovative he . . . and technology . . . can be.
Let me start, though, by telling you how my afternoon every day this week has been spent finishing up work then getting home to a flurry of interrogatives. Not that they’re difficult ones. No “Train A leaves the station at 50mph and Train B leaves at 70mph going toward each other what time do they meet?” No. It’s usually . . . “Hey Dad, can I tell you something?!”
After the question – which I usually follow with “could I really stop you?” – said child begins talking. And talking. And talking. In the middle of the story, which sometimes is really interesting but more often is the entire plot of every chapter of their latest book, the other two siblings come in. Most times that’s “can I tell you something funny that just happened on Spongebob?” My response to that is usually “no.”
Lately, I’ve heard Abbi’s whole story about what happened in drama class. Last night it involved their improvisation exercises and how she “had” to kiss a guy on the stage. She shrugged it off acting like it was no big deal but her ears were red.
So here’s the thing. It doesn’t bother me too much . . . it nags at me. I am thrilled she had great improvisation – which she tells me she’s not good at doing – but I also have to swallow down the male tendency to be angry she’s kissed some guy. I’m not naive. She had a boyfriend last year. She had one before him. She’s responsible and loving and I cannot be the typical Dad who cleans his gun when the date shows up to get his daughter. I have to be both Mom and Dad. I wasn’t much older than her when I met her mother.
It’s that she’s growing up. This tiny little girl who stood on the top of the steps to our house and had her shadow touching the street now is old enough to make decisions and take on responsibilities. That wasn’t supposed to happen. It certainly wasn’t supposed to happen this way, either. Not without her Mom. I was processing this when my son, Noah came up and told me he’d made a cartoon, like the old stop motion claymation things.
On his Nintendo 3DS, there’s a way to do stop motion animation. He spent all afternoon and most the night before dinner making it. He took Legos and small characters from other toys and made them move, telling a story. Now, no, it’s not Coraline or Nightmare Before Christmas but he’s also only 9. For a 9-year-old to have this work out so damn well and have an actual story? I’m floored.
So here I am watching them all grow up and I realize that the time I have left with them is actually pretty short. Very short, in fact. If I look at where the boys are now . . . I have about 8 years with them. I’ll be 50 and the house will be empty. The plans I had for the future could possibly still happen, but not the way I’d envisioned them 10 years ago.
It’s funny. I’m simultaneously proud and sad. All 4 kids are growing up so quickly.
But then Sam comes up and says “I made a video too, Dad,” and shows me. In it . . . a shot of the TV screen with Spongebob playing . . . while Sam narrates.
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.
On the description part of this web page you’ll see how the name of this site: Our Story Begins comes from a saying that’s now on the wall of our house with our family photos. The saying there, actually, is “Home: the place your story begins.” That wasn’t quite as intimate as just “Our Story Begins” and my line didn’t seem quite as plagiaristic as using their phrase.
But it would be really simple to just use a saying, thought up by someone else, saying it touched my heart and made me think “yeah, that’s me!” That would be so far from the mark, though, that I would correct anyone who tried to limit what our story is about by simply saying “oh, he found a saying they hang on the wall.” The saying was appropriate because on so many fronts our story really did begin on March 26th, 2011. It’s a strange kind of irony – not bitter or obvious but strange – that my story has so many strange starts and stops on the same days. I was born on July 1st…so was my middle daughter Hannah. I was married on March 26th, but that’s also the day my wife died. Each of those could easily just be a chapter in our lives, but for certain, the biggest change and largest new volumes in the tome that is our life are on the 26th of March.
We started over. There is an outline, a map of sorts, that Andrea left us. I need that map, more of a sketch of the road ahead than an actual accurate depiction of what we’re going to see. It’s also better that way, I think. If we continued on the same path, the one road that she would have traveled, I’m not sure we’d have made it out alive. (You notice I didn’t say unscathed) You can’t go down this road without diverging from the path. Think about it: travelling down the freeway may be the quickest way to get to your destination, but if you never got off in, say, West, Texas you wouldn’t have realized it’s the kolache capitol of the state and some of the best pastries you’ll ever eat. You can’t live your life going down the same path, forever, and never stepping off to see what’s off in the woods or meeting the waitress in the diner a few miles off the path.
I use this as a metaphor because what I’m about to write may come across – particularly to my wife’s friends and family – as a bit harsh and maybe unkind. That’s not at all how it’s meant to be taken.
Andrea wanted the shortcuts on the road. I think she learned that from her father, and I’ve never been and never was fond of it. When I met her she was ambitious, dreaming, and happy. She wanted to be a television anchor – not necessarily Edward R. Murrow, Katie Couric would have been good enough for her – and she was pretty good at it. I’d gone to school for journalism and was behind the camera for the most part. That’s where my career took me as that’s where the opportunities presented themselves. I got to write, make small stories every day, and I loved it. She always thought I should have been a reporter or anchor but life had a way of changing that.
After we got married, even before we had Abbi – which was just over a year after we were married – she wanted to get out. The industry was loathe the break that glass ceiling, particularly for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed California girl. She was one of hundreds, though I would have hired her in a minute. She started to hear the advice of others saying she just needed a stable job. I was too much the dreamer. We couldn’t make a living at this. We weren’t going to make it. Andrea had seen her Dad during her formative years leave his job as an educator and go into real estate because it was fast, big money. He’d been a musician and loved it, even played for the president once, but when he got married his wife hated that he played and was out a lot and not home . . . so he just stopped. That simple. Quit the dream, it’s not worth it.
So Andrea went to pharmacy school. Partly it was because she saw it was helping people. But the main reason, and you can skewer me over this if you want, but her theory was it paid a boatload of money. Pure and simple. She had this wild-eyed theory that once she started working we wouldn’t spend a cent of it and pay off the more than $100,000 in student loans in a year or two. Even I laughed at that theory. We were already in debt, up to our eyeballs. I was working two jobs, delivering newspapers at 2am, and playing gigs every weekend I could get in order to eat. There were weeks I was up for 40 hours straight or more just to make ends meet.
You can see where this is going: we didn’t pay off those loans. We moved, because she wanted to get out of Nebraska. Then instead of renting, we bought a house. All the while I was needled for being a journalist and put down if I brought up the music again, not by her so much as those around her. The neighbors would get something big? She wanted bigger. It was like sometimes she’d absorbed the influences around her more than those in front of her. Once she started making money, we started spending it to support the lifestyle she’d gotten used to.
This was the opposite of my upbringing. My Dad didn’t want me to be a journalist. He didn’t know what he wanted for me, but this wasn’t his idea. Neither was it my Mom’s. When I wanted to go make a go of things as a musician, my Mom was aghast. I never did, and it was a good thing because I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. But when I learned to play guitar, joined a band, even started my own band, my folks were always there. My Dad helped me get the PA gear. My brother joined the band. Some nights we would play only to ceiling fans and lights . . . but there in the corner, right in front of the stage, was my Dad. Now, I write, record, and play when I can.
Andrea applied her same desire to get ahead more than be happy to the kids. Abbi came to me tonight with a letter she’d written to her drama teacher. Abbi’s always loved acting, writing, and everything to do with television, film and the stage. She loves it but was never considering going into it because her Mom always told her she had to have a backup and be a pharmacist or another suitable medical field. I told her a million stories about my Dad, my brother, and how long I wanted to fight my Mom for the ability to work in music. When Abbi started to express interest in drama my Mom started in on her, too, much like she did my brother . . . who stopped her dead.
“Let her do it, Mom.”
My mother was incredulous. “She needs to have something stable!”
“And she will, Mom, but you know how many times I’ve kicked myself for not just jumping into it and hitting the road? She’s young. She’ll bounce back from mistakes. Life is really too short and she has the time to go do something else if she fails . . . but at least she can say she tried. Make her go to school for something else and she may never do it.”
My Mom relented. It finally made sense. It never did to Andrea. I had a million arguments with her about this, too. I told her it was most important to be happy. Working is “work” if you’re not happy at what you’re doing. But tonight she showed me the letter she had to write in order to get into her drama class. In it, she talked about how it was always in her, part of her, and what she loved, but never considered it. But when all our lives turned upside down – “on March 26th, 2011, I saw this as a chance to start over, to do it again.” She looked at our lives as a new start, a new beginning . . . where our story begins.
I admit to a slight bit of wishing she’d mentioned how much I’d told her she needed to do this, how I told her I want her to be happy, but informed. How she’ll be making lattes more than reading lines, but as long as she’s aware of what she has to do and believes she’ll do it she’ll be fine. But I’m just happy she’s finally doing what she wants rather than what she thinks she needs. It can all turn on a dime. All of it. If you’re at work staring at the clock then you’re not happy.
Neil Gaiman, an amazing writer, author of American Gods and Coraline, gave a commencement speech recently and in it – I’m paraphrasing here – he said that you are the only person who can do what you do . . . that’s make art. The actor, the musician, the artist, the writer . . . no matter how bad things get, how awful your life is . . . if your Mom dies unexpectedly because of a resistant strain or pneumonia . . . the best thing to do is “…make good art. Wife leaves you for a politician, make good art. Leg gets crushed and eaten by a mutated boa constrictor . . . .make good art. Your cat explodes . . . make . . . good . . . art!” Not only did Abbi laugh at seeing that, but she realized what he was saying. He said the worst tragedy was colleagues who were miserable because now they had to write to maintain a lifestyle, not write because they love to write.
When Andrea died, I was lost. Despair during that time is palpable. I wasn’t just in grief, I was reveling in the grief. I was happy to stew, cry, and be miserable. It’s like a drug, I have to say, and you give yourself to the pain and misery and just let it wash over you like a wave. That’s how far gone I’d been in the first days after losing her. The only thing – the one thing alone – that made sense once I started to see shapes through the fog was picking up my guitar. I wasn’t sleeping. I barely ate. But without having heard Gaiman’s speech, I realize that without having heard his advice I’d done it. At 4am, watching “The Wire” on TV, or staring at the stars through the window, I wrote. I wrote song after song. Some are awful. Others . . . 5 or 6 of them in fact . . . are the best stuff I’ve ever created. Just months after losing my wife I was in the studio with my brother doing one of the best vocal performances I’d ever sung. I wrote a song that was raw and left me far more exposed and naked than the fearful teenager I used to be would ever have considered, but it was good. I made . . . good art.
Abbi’s not there yet, but she wants to be. It’s a turning point that I never thought I’d see. But she’s realizing now what I did a year ago. Our lives didn’t end, though it felt like it. We just began again. We had to. It’s not fun, certainly not easy, and very, very lonely a lot of the time. But today, we’re OK. We’re not rich, in fact we’re struggling a lot. But our home is filled with music. The kids – Hannah and the boys in particular – draw constantly. Abbi is in plays and musicals. Without realizing it, our house is filled with art. We don’t have a lot of money, no, but we do have is wonderful.
Right toward the end, when I had gotten a job in television that paid well – first in Dallas and then here in Sacramento – Andrea looked at me confused one day. “You actually have gotten here, haven’t you? I mean, I went through all that school, did the loans, and I’m making really good money . . . but you never stopped believing you’d be able to do this. Now you are. You were right, weren’t you?”
All I could tell her was yes . . . maybe. But it wasn’t that I was sure, it’s that I wanted to do it. I didn’t have another degree and don’t know how to do anything else but play the guitar – two of the worst-paid professions. But the hard exterior started to crack. I wonder what she would have been like five more years down the road? Would she have done like me and pushed Abbi to do what she wanted, not needed? I kind of doubt it, but she would have been OK with it anyway.
It’s gratifying, in a strange sort of way, that Abbi’s coming to terms with this. But she knows that as long as she’s happy, she will be OK, because I’ll be there. We’re better together than we are apart, my mantra now, and she’ll never be without someone there, not while I’m here and her siblings too.
But most of all, it’s gratifying that they’re all starting to see it: our lives – our stories – haven’t ended. It’s really true.