You wouldn’t think that’s hard, considering the fact that I am a journalist and work in a visual medium. After all, you can argue that’s part of my job. It should be inherent, learned through osmosis, even.
I never had to apply those observations to home before. I mean, sure, I noticed things my wife and kids liked and made mental notes to delightfully surprise them with gifts. I knew when my wife was upset, I wasn’t totally oblivious. But today, nearly two years after my wife has passed away, I have to be more than a little cautious.
This may sound strange, but as my oldest daughter’s bathroom is the shared downstairs bathroom, I can tell when “that time of the month” has hit. It’s not just the scarlet traces on the underside of the toilet lid or the applicators in the garbage can. When I hear her at the medicine cupboard in the kitchen (I keep it all there . . . safer and I control who gets what. Remember that, bathrooms are a little too private sometimes for parental medicines) I can tell she needs Naproxen for cramps. My middle . . . who has a totally different week and inherited her mother’s unfortunate PMS swings shares a bathroom with her brothers. Same thing. I see the maxi pad wrapper on the floor. Two feet from the waste basket. Next to the empty box, which she then claims she didn’t use all of and steals her sister’s feminine products.
Yeah. I have to be observant.
I turn the boys around and send them right back upstairs in the mornings when I can tell they didn’t brush their teeth. I can see when they’ve had some bought, sugary cereal or treat because I have to peel them off the ceiling. Even if they claim they’re fine and had no such treats. Sure. You’re just normally acting this way.
But it’s the emotional signs and triggers that I have to watch. It’s not social media. Only my oldest is allowed an account there right now. It’s the signs and signals that I can see. It’s how the light in the room dims just a few candlewatts as one of them walks into our sphere. It’s how my oldest switches from the bubbly, smiley, snuggly little girl to being quiet and terse. My son, Noah, gets nervous and twitchy when things go differently.
Noah has been that way the last few days.
I know why, mainly because I’ve been noticeably absent on occasion. I was out of town last weekend and they were all in their oldest sister’s care. She’s 18, every bit the adult, and worth her weight in gold. This weekend, they’re staying with their aunt, who cares for their grandma who is terminally ill. They love going there, but the boys are strangely nervous. Abbi and I have a college visit and we’re gone . . . just one day . . . but gong nonetheless.
Absence, however little, is hard on them. They all weigh that their sister is leaving for college in the Fall. They worry about the changes in our household. What if Dad changes? What if our family dynamic changes?
My reaction is to be . . . the same. Normal. Well . . . normal is a relative term for us, I get that. But still, normal for us. Traveling on a whim, running crazy, messy house, silly cartoon voiced moments that swirl around us like notes in an old Disney movie. That’s what I do.
I could easily ignore those observations, come home, and just be home acting the part of exhausted and over-worked Dad. That benefits nobody. If I wait until they have lost it and go crazy, it’s been too long.
It’s the tiniest of observations that keep us moving forward.
As much as I put into writing and kept discussing and chanting the mantra I still stressed and worried about my oldest daughter and her trials and tribulations. It’s not that one event – in this case the prom – was so worrisome that I had to lose sleep and worry about her. It’s the prom. Nobody enjoys it, not really, except maybe the jocks who find a girl that will sleep with them on prom night. Quite frankly, I’m thrilled that my daughter is old enough and clever enough to know what’s right and wrong. It’s both sad and scary that I so wanted her to get a date to the prom but worse yet secretly hoped she wouldn’t because of all the pressure that guys bring to the fore in formal events.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t one who pressured anyone. Partially it was because I’m not that kind of person but mostly it’s because I just wasn’t as confident or mature to even think about it. Had I obtained that confidence or shown it I might very well have had a much better date – as would my prom date. But that’s the rub, isn’t it, that I had a date. My daughter, in her emotional distress and confusion, was convinced that there was no way in hell she would go to the prom since she didn’t have a date and that she’d much prefer to go to see “The Black Keys” rather than the prom.
Then there’s her sister, Hannah, who had a mandate that she have no missed assignments or zeros on her report or she doesn’t get to go to the same said concert. On top of that, if she fails, all three of them have to move to the public school, going down the street where their sister Abbi goes. When I saw blank spots on her math chapter check I asked and got a panicked tirade about how things changed and she didn’t know it when we were in Nebraska for the anniversary of my wife’s passing. She said the teacher changed the assignments and didn’t tell her and that it was all a mistake. A mistake that’s now more than a month past.
“Why haven’t you asked her about them like I said?”
“Because she scares me!”
“No she doesn’t.”
“Yes she does,” says Hannah, but her eyes betray her. She’s not scared at all. She knows she should have taken care of this but didn’t. I made the deal and I told her I’m sticking by it.
“Today was the day you were supposed to fix this. You didn’t and by all rights you should stay home and miss the concert. You get tomorrow. That’s it. You’re not scared of your teacher, you’re embarrassed to talk with her. That’s different, but if you let that embarrassment overtake you you’re not going to get anywhere and all your siblings suffer. She wants to help you and you disappointed her if you don’t fix it. That’s why you haven’t talked with her.”
All this swirling around a singular concert with a band that may or may not be around in their distant future.
I like the band. They’re good, solid musicians with a penchant for actually playing their own instruments and avoiding auto-tune like the plague. For those two things alone I respect them. But my line to my daughter even a month or more ago was the fact that even I had a date to the prom. Times were different, yes. The location was different, yes. I was an awful date, yes, all of that. But I still went. My line to my daughter was that in 10 or 15 years, when she looks back, will she remember the Black Keys because they were Hendrix or Clapton-like in their staying power, or will she remember that she had a chance to go to her first public school formal event and skipped it?
Now, let’s review what got me here, though. I have tried over and over again to tell myself that I just have to let my kids solve the major issues on their own. I can’t get her a prom date, homecoming date, or any date. Can you imagine what would happen if I tried?! Good God, it’s hard enough to be a kid without your parent(s) messing with things.
To be honest, this isn’t really about a dance, anyway. It’s both of us adjusting to what life is going to be like, and for Abbi it’s nothing but change, month after month and year after year. I was so inept at the age when Prom was the most important thing in your life. But had I had that confidence would I really have ended up with Andrea as my wife? Not that I would have found better, there was no better, but would she have responded. I found her at the exact moment she needed someone who would treat her the way she deserved to be treated – at least that’s what she said. She found me at the time I needed to be able to shed the weight of the cross I was bearing and come into my own. She found out she could have fun with someone who wasn’t just wanting to party all day and enjoyed what she had to say. We worked together so we knew we could not only stand each other’s company we enjoyed it. We talked about more than college or drinking or who slept with whom in our circles of friends.
When I met Andrea I still had all that weight I was carrying around. I’ve posted this before, but she was planning on moving away from Omaha. She didn’t see anything to keep her there and she wasn’t sure there was a life for her there. I started dating her at that moment because, let’s face it, the risk was low. I might get hurt, but the repercussions were minimal since she’d be moving if it didn’t work out. But the oppressive weight that held me back from everything went away. I was so worried I’d lose what I had with her if I didn’t take that risk, worry about being embarrassed, that I asked her out – damn the consequences, no reward without risk.
But I shouldered weight my daughter didn’t want or expect me to because her life has had to change and will change so much. We couldn’t keep her in her private school because I’d lost Andrea and the income she would have brought. I moved her to a public school after a life filled with private, Catholic education. She moved into dating and boyfriends with no Mom to hold her and tell her she knows and understands the pressures of being a girl in a world filled with guys with only one thing on their mind. So when she’s upset she can’t get a date and the guy she hoped would ask, even thought they’re just good friends is with a girl he’s had a crush on, I’m crushed myself, shouldering weight she doesn’t seem too crushed by herself. I worry about the fact that she has her senior year, will get through it, and then has to decide on college and it all changes, blowing into a whole new world for her all over again. This girl who had to deal with changing her life, her home, her school and her social circles now has to do it all over again in less than another year. She’s strong, smart, quirky, and fun and my biggest worry is that she thinks that has to change with the changes in her life.
But then she told me how she’s joining a big group of people and going on her own. She’ll get to dance with a bunch of guys and she’ll look beautiful in this amazing dress that we’re getting tailored. Even though I quietly kept my ignorance of the advice to myself, worrying about the fact I couldn’t fix her problems, they got fixed. She did it on her own, just like my dear friend told me. I can’t fix it all, and I shouldn’t even if I can. Sometimes my kids have to fix their own problems. I understand the fear of going to a dance alone, though some of my favorites were when I did. I danced with people I wouldn’t have been able to with a date. I faced embarrassment even though my daughter doesn’t want to. It’s important and she needs to do it or it will overtake her later in life. But they’re all things they have to face, not me. I want so much to go in there and just meddle and do it for them.
But I can’t. They must, and through that, I live on, and I’ll be strong, because It’s just not my cross to bear.