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There Blows No Wind

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There Blows No Wind…

The line is from a Persian poem, written many years before Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet but dealing with the same themes of forbidden love and loss.

While the theme here isn’t forbidden love, there’s a good deal of loss, even four years on.

The poem, depending on the translation, goes like this:

I am yours
However distant you may be
There blows no wind but wafts your scent to me
There sings no bird but calls your name to me
Each memory that has left its trace with me
Lingers forever as a part of me

I’m a writer, sure, but poetry hasn’t been my forte.  (I know, musician but no poetry…don’t start with me)

The strangest things trigger memories.  They sit, strong, vivid, painfully obvious when loss first comes.  I don’t care if that’s your wife, father, mother, brother, sister, daughter, son…you get the picture.  The littlest things are memories.  You are surrounded by the person you lost because your surroundings are their surroundings, at least they were.

Years on the strength of the memories isn’t as great.  Still, they can come, and at this stage in the game they can come at the most random times from the most random of reasons.

In television and magazine terms, today, they call it a “trigger warning” when the publisher or broadcaster thinks people might have a severe emotional reaction to something they’re about to publish.  That is well and good when you know it’s going to trigger something.

But how do you prepare for a smell?

Andrea and Abbi . . . during the Pharmacy School era

The last couple weeks someone in my building at work has either a perfume or a lotion that – I think – must be exactly the same as one my late wife, Andrea, wore.

It’s subtle, by the way.  Some people bathe in perfume or lotion and you can smell them coming from miles away.  This isn’t that at all, in fact it’s light and just a wisp, carried in the air for the smallest of lingerings.  It may pass by most people with no thought whatsoever.

I hadn’t noticed what it was in the first couple exposures, if I’m being honest.  What I realized was that I was a bit melancholy, nostalgic, thinking of my late wife more than I normally did most days.  I couldn’t put my finger on why.

This afternoon, though, I was through a hallway and the scent was stronger, making me realize why I felt this way.  It was like hitting a wall . . . not a wall of smell but like the hallway disappeared and I was standing in a kitchen that barely afforded room for one person to move and she would move behind me so we’d be stuck, between sink and refrigerator and Andrea would have to put her arms around me, hugging, to skirt by.  It was the Thanksgiving where so many people came to our small home that we couldn’t actually get around the table…we had to go outside, into the back yard, and through the back door to get to the kitchen.

It was whimsy and youth and farcical and it was as if those days weren’t really as far away as I had placed them in my memory. As I passed through the hallway and back to my desk the smell lingered.  I can’t be sure if it was really there or if it had dissipated while my brain still processed the millions of nodes that danced in the delight of the smell.

The funny thing is, the smell was a delight.  I ached to stay in that moment, the memories rushing through like rewinding an old videotape.  It’s confusing too, though, because I miss her but I wouldn’t go back, either.  It’s a series of great memories and the smell becomes tactile.  I feel her hand on the back of my head and the hairs on my neck stand on end.  I want it and fight it at the same time.  Eventually I take a deep breath . . . and it’s gone.

It could very well belong to some twenty-something intern, which would be odd for me, considering I have a twenty-year-old daughter now.  Part of me thinks it would be best not to know who wears it, I couldn’t look her in the eye.  I miss my wife, but I don’t want to go back there, either.  The upside here is it doesn’t take me to the end.  Today, nearly four years later, I relish the good memories and the mere fact of its existence doesn’t make me realize how she’s gone.  She’s been gone for awhile now.

In the end, it’s a scent, but it’s a memory…a good memory.

It lingers forever as a part of me.

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From the Beginning

From the Beginning

Our Story Begins: Three Years
From the Beginning

“You have a choice. You can become bitter and consumed by it or you make it a part of your incredible journey.”

Those are the words used to describe my last three years by my friend Rene Syler.  The description comes with the release of what we have turned into an annual event: the making of a music video that is a recap of our previous year.  “Our” being myself and my four children: two girls, now aged 19 and 14; two boys aged 10 – twins.  Missing from the equation is the woman you see in the picture up there, Andrea Marie Andrews Manoucheri.

This is a strange day for me.  Exactly 21 years ago today I was getting primped and prepared and worrying about what happens next as I readied myself to go to St. John’s Church at Creighton University’s campus.  It was my wedding day, a day I remember through photos and see as more of a blur than a strong and intense memory.  When you’re young – in my case 21 – you stress and worry and freak out about the strangest things.  We almost didn’t have her wedding dress, the airlines had lost the bag with the dress in it.  We almost didn’t have the rings, they seemed to have disappeared about an hour before the ceremony.  I vaguely remember the band, the dance, the songs, all of it.

Today I wish I had been the calm, deliberate demeanor I’ve managed to attain today.  I have my moments, my anger and tension boiling and stretching me to the point that I blow like a pressure cooker set too high.  Those are few and far between, though, much fewer than they ever were in those first days, weeks, and months of marriage.  I miss the memories I didn’t keep roiling around in my brain from that day.  It’s abundantly clear, dated as the dress is, that my bride was absolutely beautiful.

From the Beginning - kissing

It’s a stark contrast, then, to 18 years later – to the day – when Andrea passed away.  The blur and the stress and the tension were there, but different.  The made up, dressed up, anticipatory feelings were completely replaced by a blur of syringes, IV lines, and CPR counts.  The very day I entered into the contract of marriage is the day that the contract dissolved, in a haze.  Instead of worry it was panic.  Instead of warm glow it was white haze.  Tears of joy were replaced by tears shed in grief.  Andrea did a lot of things to me: she entranced me, enamored, impressed, indulged, cared for, and improved me and my life.  She also infuriated, frustrated, angered, saddened and scared me.  That’s marriage, cut down to its purest descriptors.  Single-word verbs acting on the noun that is . . . me.  I was a better person for having been her husband.

So when the doctors came up to me after having heaved on her chest and injected her with a myriad of drugs and said “you’re going to have to make a decision…” I truly felt her drift away, tearing pieces of me with her as the part of her heart that clung to mine was torn away.

A shot the day before Andrea passed in the hospital
A shot the day before Andrea passed in the hospital

Related: Our Story Begins: Year One

Each year since that day has had its changes.  Year one was adjustment.  We just had to walk, like our shoes were encased in cement, inch by inch, the journey not so much Rene’s description of “incredible” but more necessary.

Related: Our Story Begins: Then Came Year Two

Year two was pronouncement: we certainly are these people: motherless, wifeless, widowed and without one parent.  We told the world this is part of what we are but this is not  WHO we are.

From the Beginning - me and the boys

Welcome to year three.  Each second, minute, day and year since March 26th, 2011, has been one of adjustment.  Adjusting to loss; adjusting to routine; adjusting to need; adjusting to change.  Change has been our norm but we embraced it.  “Life isn’t handed to you in a blue Tiffany box with a nice white bow.  Sometimes people are hurt, they change . . . and sometimes they die.”  That’s my friend’s description.

This is a journey.  It’s a story.  We’ve scratched it, letter by letter, like a monk slowly transcribing a bible by candlelight.  Our new video this year is an old Emerson Lake and Palmer song, From the Beginning.  It’s not a new beginning, it’s another beginning.  We have learned to accept help, change, and most important . . . love.  (It’s a cheesy line, sure, but it’s true nonetheless)  Please watch it…you can see we went from sadness in year one to change in year two . . . to being . . . us.  This is my family and we’re happy, lucky and loved.  It doesn’t mean we’re perfect.   It doesn’t mean we don’t miss her.  It certainly doesn’t mean we’re always happy.  But happiness was never contingent on just one person.

Still . . . today, on this odd dual anniversary . . . miss her we do.  But we’ve known all along: we’re stronger together than when we’re apart.  Fly on, my sweet angel, I loved the way you spread your wings.

Christmas Memories

Spritz cookies - shaped like little Christmas trees!
Spritz cookies – shaped like little Christmas trees!

I spent the majority of my time tonight baking.

That’s not new, I don’t suppose.  I bake treats for all my kids’ lunches every week.  Cookies, candies, all of it homemade.  Before you think I’m being a martyr or something it’s not that.  My kids just seem overly sensitive to something in the store-bought treats.  If I make rice-krispie bars they’re fine.  Buy them in the store and they’re climbing the walls.  It’s that simple.

But this is different.  This is Christmas.

My oldest, Abbi, might remember Christmas in my home in Nebraska.  While I realize that you might call the holidays there a throwback to a Mad Men era . . . men sitting in the living room talking all day and the women doing all the cooking . . . our homes were different.  My Mom made a ton of stuff for Christmas, from cookies to pies to what have you.  I don’t call this “her job” because it wasn’t.  It was tradition.

If my Mom made tons of stuff . . . my grandma, Lanone, made truckloads.  The fact that the Midwest is so cold in the winter, she would bake for weeks and weeks and there would be treats on her back entryway, off the porch, where it was below freezing.  Sugar cookies were my favorites.  She made chocolate-coated Lincoln logs; pecan sandies; divinity; fudge (God the fudge was good) . . . my Mom was the best pie maker so that was left in her hands.

Growing up, my late wife had similar memories, but they centered around her Mom.  Butter softened so that she could carve it into roses.  The table was set with placecards and she always made some kind of gourmet meal.  She was Martha Stewart before Martha stole everyone’s ideas and got rich off of them.

But this last year has removed so much of those things and made me more than a little melancholy.  I made a third pie tonight, then pecan sandies after calling my mom for the recipe.  I made molasses/cardamom cookies.  I prepped to make sugar cookies and my oldest looked at me saying “why would you do that, Dad?  You already made cookies, just take a break!  We have 3 pies and cookies that’s enough.”

I paused, considering it.  I looked at her and said “I want you guys to have what I had . . . just a little anyway.”  My grandma passed away this year.  So did Andrea’s Mom and Dad.  We’re a two day drive away from my folks and my brothers.  The only thing I have to bring some of that home to them is to show them what I had growing up: treats, foods, and all of it with the best intentions in mind.  I wasn’t complaining because, like my grandma, I wanted to do this.  I never remember hearing her or my mother complain or moan about it.

“That’s a lot of work,” my daughter said.  I admitted as much.
“Your Grandma and great-Grandma did it, though I admit . . . they didn’t work a day job then do this, too.”

But this isn’t about treats.  It’s about tradition and love and Christmas.  This is the house filled with pleasant smells and spices and that reminds me of growing up where the nip in the air bites your nose and reddens your cheeks.  As an adult you curse it and as a kid, bundled up like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man you adore it.

I don’t know how my kids will remember these days . . . but I don’t want them to think the day centered around their Dad coming home and sitting in front of the television.  This is Christmas.

And I want them to make new memories.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  

Her Mother’s Daughter, but Not Her Mother

Hannah on Guitar
Hannah on Guitar

I had a discussion tonight with my middle daughter, Hannah, about responsibilities and how things really worked in our household.  Not a bad conversation, but an effort to get the record straight for her.  It all started with what I think she believed was a throwaway statement.

“Well…I just figured things at school, like Homecoming and dances and stuff would have to not happen because I have to watch the boys.”

I kind of stared at her, a little dumbfounded.

“Why would you have to skip sporting events or homecoming or any of that?”
“Well, I don’t know anybody anyway so it’s not really a big deal, Dad.”
I stared at her again, this time a bit sternly.
“It’s only September, Hannah, and you already know some people.  I know I am meeting some guys to play some guitar tonight, but you’re babysitting the boys, not mothering them.”

Hannah looked at me a little sheepishly.

“Hannah, I’m going to tell you the exact same things I told your older sister right after your Mom passed away.  You are Noah and Sam’s sister, you’re not their Mom.  I don’t expect you to be their Mom and I don’t ask you to be their Mom.  Do you understand that?”
Hannah nodded.  It was important to me that she understand.

Ever since Andrea passed away there’s been a small (not large, very small in fact) contingent that assumed, quite unreasonably, that I’d rely very heavily on my daughters to take on a sort of “motherly” role and basically – for lack of a better phrase – become the Mom of the house.  Now, they don’t expect the girls to become “Mom” they aren’t in charge, but to take on the assumed female role in the household.

I, however, was bound and determined for that not to happen in my house.

Abbi was 16 when her Mom passed.  Hannah was about to turn 12.  It was important to me that they still be teenagers.  I had seen people who were forced to take on the role when their fathers couldn’t muster the necessary faculties to take on the roles of Dad and Mom.  I wasn’t going to be that person.  In fact, I hadn’t been for awhile.  While Andrea, my wife, was sick the years prior, I had literally done everything but the laundry in the home.  Andrea wasn’t incapacitated, but emotionally and physically she was unable to care for everything.  I took on a much greater role.

The funny thing is, as much as I saw it a burden when I was married – not that I took it out on her or anyone, it was one you had to shoulder as a Dad and husband – it became a responsibility I gladly shouldered when Andrea was gone.  So the idea that Abbi or Hannah was cooking dinners, doing laundry, the Cinderella of the house, was about as far from the truth as you could get.

Don’t take that to mean I didn’t or don’t rely on them.  We all have our chores.  Abbi was tremendously helpful in getting Hannah used to doing makeup and dressing like a girl, not a tomboy, and how to deal with her period because…let’s face it, Dad isn’t the person you necessarily want to talk with about your period.  But she’s comfortable enough to have the discussion now if she needs medicine, tampons, pads, or what have you.  I’m both parents now, I go to the store and buy those as readily as razor blades and shaving cream.

“Hannah, your Mom passed away and I’ve done everything I can to make sure you can be you.  I cook, I clean – even the bathrooms, which you are just as responsible for making disgusting as your brothers.”  She looked at her feet.  “But to say you can’t do things because you have to watch your brothers is simply wrong.  If you want to go to Homecoming, you can go.  I have the job I have so that I can come home and let you go, drive you, pick you up, all of that.  If you need a dress we’ll get one.  I will find ways to make all of that happen.”
“But Dad, I don’t really know anybody.  And what if I want to start a band.  I don’t have time.”
“I’m home by early evening.  We have a garage.  The boys would listen as you rehearsed.  Is that really the issue?”
I looked at her knowingly and she blushed a little.
“Or are you coming up with excuses to not do things so you don’t have to put in the effort…because it’s hard?”
She blushed a little more.
“I know it’s hard, Hannah, but if I’d never joined my first band…if I’d never started my own band I’d have never recorded.  If I’d never asked your Mom out I’d never have been married.  I wouldn’t have you.  Everything takes effort.  It’s all in how much effort you want to put into it.”

Hannah looked at me and smiled.  “I don’t think I have to be Mom, Dad.”
“I’m not totally screwing you up yet, am I?”  I asked hoping for the answer I eventually got.
“No…not at all!  I love you Daddy.”

She kissed me on the cheek and went upstairs to play her guitar.

A Trip to Remember

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.

At the Sundial Bridge
At the Sundial Bridge

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.

2013-08-22 09.38.49Hannah, 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.

On the Ferris Wheel
On the Ferris Wheel

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.

The prize winners!
The prize winners!

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.

 

“Don’t Wait Up”

There’s comfort in a few standard parenting things.

When I was in high school and later college, when I’d come home for the summer, if I went out with friends, knowing full well I wouldn’t get home until around midnight (this would be after the age of 18) my father would be there, waiting, in his chair.

I never really thought about it until tonight, but I do the same thing.

My oldest daughter is 18, old enough to know what she should and should not do.  She’s an adult, at least by the letter of the law, and in a few weeks she’s going to be in college.  By the time her birthday rolls around this year she’ll be the age I was when I met her mother.  That actually scares me a little bit, I have to be honest.

But tonight she wanted to go out with friends and I didn’t really have a problem with that.

“You don’t have to wait up,” she said as she walked out the door at about a quarter to ten.  Her friends had worked late, and she knew they’d be talking for awhile.
“I never have to wait up,” I told her.
“Yeah, I know, just putting it out there.”

But I sit here now, writing, and I hope that she takes comfort in the fact that I would be here waiting for her when she gets home.  Sure, I worry to a degree, she’s a young girl out late.  Still, I don’t think about it that way.  It’s a comfort to me just as much that she’s coming in the door and I know she’s safe.  I may not get to do this in a few weeks’ time, but I can do it today.

So I wait up.  It’s not painful (though tomorrow at work might be).  It is comforting, hopefully for both of us, but I’m not thinking of it from her perspective as much as my own.  If I can do this a few more times, I’ll certainly do it.

And when she’s older, or coming with a boyfriend (he shuddered at the thought) or making her way for the holidays . . . I’ll be there, in a chair, like my father, just waiting for her so she knows I’m there.  It’s not to put a fear into her, it’s to comfort her to know that she’s that important.  That it’s not worry, it’s welcoming and it’s consistent.

It’s loving.

So I sit . . . and I will wait up.

A Dog, a Monkey, a Bear and a Horse

There are a few things that make their way into people’s lives, particularly little kids’ lives, that we may not truly understand as outsiders, looking in on just a small window of other’s daily goings-on.  In this particular instance, I’m talking about some of the stuffed animals that we have in our home.

I don’t say this with any amount of disdain or complaint.  We have a number of them, in fact Noah has the entire foot of his bed covered in a menagerie of stuffed creatures.  I have a tub full of them I couldn’t bring myself to dispose of when we moved because they were some piece of my kids’ childhood I didn’t have the heart to dump in the trash unceremoniously.

But there are a few things that attach themselves to my kids and only they know why they glom onto them so tightly, and that’s okay.

Abbi in Omaha
Abbi in Omaha

For my oldest daughter, the creature was a horse named Sophia.  She never could tell me why she named the horse Sophia.  The mare had survived moving from Omaha, where we got the horse, to Texas.  A friend from kindergarten, who lived not far from us, daughter of two doctors, gave the horse to Abbi.  I never knew why, but Abbi loved that horse.  My theory was it was a piece of Omaha, a piece of that former town, where her first years, the formative days where she spent every Monday just with her Daddy and ate ice-cream in Omaha’s Old Market.  It was a tie, not to the person who gave her the horse, though they were friends, but to the memory of the place.  It moved to Texas with us.  Abbi slept with her every single night.  When she got sick with a stomach bug and Sophia got dirty in a night filled with worrisome vomit and fever . . . Andrea, my late wife, washed Sophia.  The mane became matted, clumped and stiff.  She was beaten up, worn, and tattered . . . and Abbi still wouldn’t sleep with anything else.  Obviously, at 18, she doesn’t sleep with her any more, but I happen to know that tucked away in a safe place in her room sits Sophia, just in case.  A tie to another time and place.

Abbi and Hannah...with AndreaMy middle daughter has a different animal.  Hers is a regular Teddy Bear.  Hannah was always a tomboy and her imagination wasn’t focused on names at that point.  She got the bear at a build-a-friend kind of place where we took Abbi for her birthday.  The thing that I think ties the bear so closely to Hannah is that her sister, Abbi, wasn’t forced but asked that Hannah be part of the birthday celebration.  She wanted Hannah to have a bear and make one and have a good time.  Getting the bear, I believe, was a difficult part for both girls because we’d already decided by that point we were moving West, to California.  For Hannah, like her sister, this is as much a tie to good days as it is to a time before she became the middle child and was the youngest.  She loves that bear, and like Abbi, doesn’t sleep with “Soccer Bear” (told you it wasn’t that imaginative) she still has him.  Like Sophia, he’s been beat up, dirtied, washed, and still survives.

Noah's Sock Monkey...a previous repair.
Noah’s Sock Monkey…a previous repair.

Noah has a sock monkey.  It’s not named anything but that, but it’s a sock monkey.  I contacted the Rockford Sock Company, who still makes those brown thick socks, and found they make the monkeys, too.  I passed this along to Santa Clause, mainly because he wanted it sooo much.  The spark was a movie: Mister Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.  It is, frankly, a very sad movie with a happy thought attached to it, but throughout a little sock monkey wants nothing more than to give a hug to one of the main characters.  When Noah got his monkey, he loved it like no other present that year.  My wife was astounded.  I was reassured that I wasn’t too bad at finding presents.  I failed for my wife every year but my kids seemed to be doing well.  The monkey has had a leg pull a stitch…then the other.  Today, it’s a tie to the last year or so Noah had his Mom.  I don’t think that’s why he loves it so, but it stays with him.  There are only a couple creatures he keeps at the head of the bed, sleeping with him: his sock monkey and the knitted owl that his sister made for him, named Nelson.  Those remain cherished for him.

Sam . . . has something that I never thought would become his favorite.  When we were in Texas, my job had me leaving town, a lot.  California was the same.  On one of those trips I vowed to the boys, in particular, that I’d bring something back for them.  For Sam, it was a little grey stuffed dog.  He named it, for whatever reason, Shuno.  (Shoe-Know) I never even thought he liked the dog that awful much.  But when we went on a trip one day and he didn’t have Shuno . . . Sam melted down.  It must have meant a lot to him (though it annoyed the hell out of me) when I turned around, twenty miles from home, and went back for the dog.  It’s remained with him since.  He doesn’t cuddle it, it’s not a security blanket, at least not in the sense that you’d typically think of it.  But this morning he came down the stairs, Shuno on his head, acting like a model from 1953 trying to walk upright with a book on her head.  When Shuno fell he grabbed the dog and dusted him off.  I looked at Shuno last night . . . he’s matted, dirty, beaten up.  I’ve sewn back two of his legs already.  But Sam won’t get rid of him.  He loves the dog.  I like to think for Sam it means, for him, that when I said I would always come back I do.  Having lost his mother that might be even more scary for him, and Shuno might just mean for him that there are times when it was still that way.  I do come back . . . and he’s refused to let anything happen to him.  The last time Shuno threw a stitch Sam bugged me every fifteen minutes until I broke out my reading glasses, the needle and thread.  While he showered I fixed Shuno.  After he came down he asked if I would fix the dog, which he couldn’t keep with him due to the large seem burst on his leg, and I threw the dog to him.  He’d never looked happier, like I’d solved the mystery of the pyramids single-handed.

My little boy, Sam, when he was a baby.
My little boy, Sam, when he was a baby.

So why is this tale of a dog, a monkey, a bear and a horse anything to write about?  There’s a common thread here: each of those kids has chosen their respective surrogates for comfortable and happy times.  That doesn’t mean that Abbi or Hannah were happiest without their siblings.  Still, they have happy memories.  Abbi – in that tiny little house with the hardwood floors.  Hannah – in Texas with her best friend down the street and a sister who shared a special day with her.  Noah – a memory of how he loves hugging and clings to secure and good things, good times when he had two parents.  Sam – the boy who loved a present I wanted him to love so much and never revealed it until it surprised me.  It’s a reminder for him that there’s some security in his Dad.

I know some parents who worry about kids with their animals, kind of like Linus in the Peanuts cartoons with his blanket.  But remove those symbols and you might just be removing something that ties those kids to warm and comfortable places.  They’re not living in the past.  Maybe they’ve idealized it a little bit . . . but none of it is harming the future, either.  Even today, if they need a reminder of how things were great back in the days they had two parents they have that.  My kids face that we’re all different and have different thoughts about the future.  We all realize that their Mom wasn’t as great or perfect as the ideal pictures hanging on the wall.

But there were great and amazing times that give us comfort.  For them, it’s as simple as a dog, a monkey, a bear and a horse.

It’s That “Look” That’s the Killer

Maybe you know the look I’m talking about.  I’m guessing you don’t, though, as most people don’t know how to behave like human beings when important or uncomfortable things arise.

The obvious, of course, is the “look” I get when I have to explain to some new person, be that a person at work or a person in public or what have you, that I lost my wife, Andrea, a little over two years ago.  For these people, I understand, that’s a shocking piece of information.  It’s not an easy thing to comprehend.  They’re looking at photos on my desk or ask about what college my oldest daughter is about to attend and . . . when they ask about my wife I simply say “she passed away two years ago.”

That’s when it comes.

The eyebrows rise…the eyes widen, I’ve even seen a few pupils dilate, just a little, when the words hit home.  The best of people, knowing I’ve said this rather matter-of-fact, express their sympathies and move on.  Most, though, have no idea they’re acting a bit off the mark and begin to spew apologies, ask what it must be like, push for details…

As human beings sometimes we seem to lose track of that very humanity and don’t know when to stop being too invasive.  Nerves overtake our senses and we seem to keep pushing when it’s abundantly clear that the person whose tragedy you’ve just heard about is trying to have a normal conversation that you just jackknifed with prodding for details and emotions we’ve already experienced and, hopefully, dealt with for our own lives.

But that’s old territory.  I’ve heard stories of that “look” from others.

My friend who is battling cancer . . . getting the most random comments about the fact she’s lost all her hair.  If she’s been sick or out for months and comes back with no hair . . . what do you think happened?  And in the middle of all that, why treat her differently?  I don’t begin to understand everything someone battling cancer has to go through, but I also try to make no assertions that I do and ask questions about what she needs.  If they’re stupid, I expect she’ll let me know, if not, I’ll ask and make sure I’m not being stupid.

The worst, though (well, the cancer patient questions are really worst, but this literary device pushes the story forward), is what my daughter faces. At work, at school, everywhere she goes the idea that she’s doing everything with her mother persists.  “Are you going to help your Mom fix Thanksgiving dinner?” she got in November.  Rather than explain, most the time she just said “yes” but then came home frustrated and breaking down because of it.  She has acquaintances who ask her why she is – or could be – so close with her father and she looks at them like they are crazy.  She’s always had a close relationship with her father (her words, not mine) and I believe I’m close with all 4 kids.  The emotions and needs are all different, but we’re still close.

Worse . . . she gets “the look” when they ask her what she’s going to study in college.
“Drama and theater,” she tells them, and she gets that look.
“It’s the same look they give me when they found out Mom died,” Abbi told me.  “It’s like they can’t believe I’d go through this.  In one look they tell me I’m going to be broke forever and not have anything and that I should just give up now and go do something that makes money.”  She then adds, “Mom used to give me that look, too, and then said it out loud.  She wasn’t going to let me try.”

But try she is.  I’ve told her before that she’s at the ripe age to do this without thinking.  I’ve told her that my parents told me that, whether I did it professionally or not, I needed to keep playing music.  “It’s a sin,” they told me, “to have that talent and let it falter.  You should never stop.”

They never told me I’d be famous or that I was better than Slowhand or give me illusions of grandeur, they simply could tell that it was so ingrained in my cells that I couldn’t spend the day without ever doing it.

Abbi informed me that acting, for her, was the same thing.  She has a belief she can do it and a drive to do it . . . and even though I’m her Dad, I have seen her act and she’s good.  “Be so good they can’t ignore you,” Abbi has on her wall, a quote from Steve Martin.  She’s studying, watching, learning, and determined that the “look” drives her, it doesn’t discourage her.

The “look” for her isn’t a killer.  I’ts a driving force, now.  I think that’s a good thing.

Another Park, Another Sunday

At the park with the kids
At the park with the kids

I have the hardest time with this particular day.  For the most part, I like to treat Mother’s Day like it’s Sunday.  That’s it.  Sunday.  I know that seems silly, maybe a bit naive.  Reality is, though, my main goal is to try and head off as many reminders that they’re missing their mother as I can.  It may have been two years already but that doesn’t change that my kids all have been dealing with losing their mother in far different ways.

Some handle it better than others, too.

But that’s not the way the world is set up.  It’s funny how that is, too.  The boys’ class, in particular, has been making Mother’s Day presents for awhile.  I don’t say this claiming the class should avoid it because my two boys don’t have a Mom . . . but my sons, being only 10, did have to ask the teacher what they were supposed to do . . . “we don’t have a Mom any more,” they told them.  In the end they decided to split their duties and one made a book for his Aunt, Andrea’s sister, and the other for Andrea’s Mom.

Hannah, my middle child, decided she was going to take a totally different tactic, which I loved: she mad her Dad a Mother’s Day card.

“This is totally weird, I know, but HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, DAD!” it said.

It was so quirky, funny, and just so . . . us . . . that I had to smile.
“I love it, Hannah,” I told her.  Her older sister even laughed out loud and told her it was perfect.

It’s not that I want to say that I deserve anything on Mother’s Day, I don’t, I didn’t carry them.  I didn’t suffer the pain of childbirth.  I didn’t go through all that.

But I see the dichotomy of it being more than a bit unfair, particularly in my situation.

The kids and their cousins
The kids and their cousins

The “Mother’s Day Tea” that the school has every year has a policy: the kids whose Moms don’t come don’t get to attend.  That seemed a bit unfair to me.  I get it . . . some Moms work, or can’t or hell…maybe they’re just nasty.  I don’t know.  But even then . . . should that be the kid’s fault?  Should they have to sit in the Extended Day Program room and watch Cinderella while the other kids eat biscotti or brownies and hobnob around?  I was saved, yet again this year, by the Mom of one of Hannah’s best friends when she asked if she could play surrogate Mom to the kids.  That way they all got to have the experience.

But then . . . what about Dad?  You know what I get?  “Donuts with Dad.”  Not that I don’t like a good fattening treat now and then, but Mom gets a “high tea” with a full plate and all that and Dad gets donuts that have been out all morning during the school book fair.  That’s right, we get to eat donuts, burnt coffee, and get lobbied by our children to buy tons of more books and school items during the morning that lasts 20-30 minutes in a chaotic rush of screaming children hopped up on sugar.

That’s fair.

I may sound bitter, but I’m not.  I understand that most houses are set up this way, even if there’s a divorce or what have you.

But we’re not a typical family.  We’ve never been anything typical, as a matter of fact.  I’ve always cooked.  I changed diapers.  I took the kids to the hospital.  I’ve tried my best to be sturdy and strong when the kids needed it.  I’ve learned more about the female menstrual cycle than I ever knew.  I know what brands of tampons to buy.  I know what foods to cook.  I know chocolate helps mood swings.  I know that I have to measure my kid’s boobs for a fancy dress, even though that’s not too comfortable a subject to broach, or the dress won’t zip up.  I cook.  I clean.

But in the end, it’s not a complaint.  I love them all – every – single – one – and differently.

So it was another Sunday. I took the kids to see their Grandma, who is not well now, and they swam in the pool with their cousins.  They ate watermelon and had a piece of cake and it was like any other visit to their cousin’s house.

But for me . . . it was a great mother’s day, because I actually got a card.  I’m not perfect, but I’m doing some of the mothering right.  To me, Hannah’s card proves it.

Beautiful Music Together

I’ve made no secrets about the so-called “musicality” of my family.  We live in a musical household, my kids grew up with it and for years saw their father leave on many weekend nights to go play whatever gig paid a small amount of cash for his services.

Some would question whether all that effort was worth it.

The thing is . . . the last two years have shown me it’s completely worth it.

The musician and his daughter
The musician and his daughter

There aren’t a lot of things that you bring into a relationship that remain specifically and only yours.  That’s a good thing, for the most part, but my late wife’s inability to create or even understand the creative process for music was a hindrance at times.  A basis for knock-down drag-out arguments at others.  Why?  It wasn’t, for the two of us, a communal thing.  When we were dating it was neat, quirky and fun.  When we were raising a family she saw it as a nuisance.  That was her and I don’t say it as a criticism.  She had a million amazing things about her . . . that just wasn’t one of them.

But then she left.  Simple as that.  Not on-purpose, it wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t really anybody’s fault.  Just one day she wasn’t there.  Suddenly everything that had become such common-ground for us was now a hindrance.  It was a reminder of her and the loss and the end of marriage and all of it.

Music wasn’t.

My beloved Dot
My beloved Dot

Music helped me heal.  Hell…it helped all of us to heal.  In the week after Andrea died I picked up my guitar and just played it.  Christ, I even beat on it.  It’s a wonderful testament to the Fender company that my green Eric Clapton model Stratocaster (affectionately dubbed “dot” from the green 7-up can color) survived those weeks.  I was soft, hard, angry, sad, and just miserable at times.  It got wet with tears.  It suffered indignity of broken strings from massive power chords beaten too hard on the pickguard.  Scratches still mar the 7-up green surface of the guitar with waxy residue from the picks I destroyed scraping the surface.

I have only begun to piece together the songs from the massive amount of writing and playing I did in those weeks.  Some have no lyrics.  Some were re-written.  Others had pieces of inspiration that can lead to better things.  It took me two years to come to terms with the fact that it’s okay to be where I am.  Sadly, only one song of mine was completed so far, but it will make the newest recording session for my brother and I to release in the Fall.

But music wasn’t just written.  It was listened to, near constantly.  I decided if we didn’t have it playing and swirling around us before it should now.  When we eat dinner it plays – on the stereo, on the cardboard radio with an ipod.  Hell, we sing, we jam, I teach Hannah songs.  It’s one thing that ended up being communal.  Abbi sings.  Sam is in the school musical.  Christ, I even jammed with a singer-songwriter who I now consider a friend. (a term I never use lightly)

Music helped us heal.  We do make beautiful music together, even when we’re off key or off beat or what have you.  The world may never hear it, nor long remember what we play.  But play we do.

Nothing about what we’re facing is perfect.  But it wasn’t two years ago, either, so why try and apply life in the past to the future?  At the end of the day we have to do what works for us.

And for us . . . it’s making beautiful music together.