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A Striking Balance

Balancing the time, talent, attention and love four four kids has never been an easy prospect for me.  My wife never quite understood my confusion and frustration with it.  She always felt you just did your best and sometimes one got more than another.  That’s the right way of looking at it.

This comes to fore with the fact that I knew there was going to be something tonight.  I wasn’t sure what, but it always happens.

Why?  It’s ratings in the television world.  I work a number of hours in the ratings times, nearly always.  It throws the house into a bit of a ruckus.  Then there’s Sam, who is the only child who is in the elementary school play.

Sam and Noah
Sam and Noah

I wasn’t too late tonight, right around 7pm getting home.  But then I had to inhale some food, jump in the car and – like most every other Soccer Mom/Dad out there – had to run and get Sam from his play practice.  When I got there. . . Sam was tired, a bit run down, still had homework, but wanted to inform me how excited he was.

He’d gotten a Presidential Fitness Award.

Here’s where the balancing act starts.

I would love to believe that I’m  Philippe Petit, walking a wire between two buildings hundreds of stories tall.

In reality, though, I’m more like the guy juggling chainsaws too early and missing a couple digits.

I knew what today would breed.  I really did.  Today . . . Sam was excited and needed the adulation that would come with what I never achieved – the fitness and exercise equivalent of a medal.

But Noah, Sam’s brother, was desperate to get one.  He wanted nothing more than to hold that award.  It was what he craved and he did, I swear, work really hard for it.  The little guy tried doing more exercises at home – not at my prodding – and everything.  The problem is . . . some people are just more athletic.  That’s Sam.  Sam is built like a wrestler who excels at being a linebacker.  Noah, poor kid, is built like his old man.  That makes his athletic life far from stellar.

So the balance?  How do I show excitement for one and not upset another.

I kept that thought tickling around in the back of my brain.  When I got home, Noah was fine.

It was the point of getting him to bed that things went haywire.  He’d already had some medicine for a slight cold he has – courtesy his brother Sam.  Then he asked if he could have a Tums for his tummy ache.  I obliged.


Before going up to bed he decided to tell me he didn’t feel good . . . and then he burst out crying.  They had given all the kids a treat at school – a giant cup with a combination of vanilla and chocolate pudding, some cookie crumbs . . . and he said he didn’t want to waste it so he ate it all, but it made him sick to his stomach.

But I know what was really happening.

It was a perfect storm.  Noah certainly did feel like he needed to eat the treat, and it probably did upset his little stomach a bit.  But he also had a cold, drainage coming into his stomach, too.  But I know what was really wrong.

The fitness award.

Sure, he’s 10, a big kid, but as he stood there sobbing I put my arm around his shoulder and pulled him onto my lap.  I gave him a great big hug.

“It’s okay, monkey.  If you don’t like something, you can tell the teacher, they’ll listen.”
He nodded.
“And it’s okay to be upset,” I said, knowing that it applied to more than just an upset tummy.  “But I’ll take care of you, it’s fine.”

To his credit, Sam, went and told his big sisters, in another room, that he’d won an award.  I congratulated him again, gave him a big hug, and told him how proud I was of him.  He still deserved an accolade for his achievement.  But he was also kind and empathetic enough to not do a victory dance in the living room.

I gave Noah a Benadryl for the allergies and cold and everything bothering him.  I put them to bed and came downstairs to make their lunches.  I still had to balance real life with emotional life, too.

I take a breath, realizing this time I’ve managed to keep the chainsaws in the air – and kept all my fingers.

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

I wrote something about a year ago about how people all around me told me that they were seeing signs and getting signals from my late wife.  She was seemingly everywhere when somebody needed them.

Just not with the five people in my house.

I know that sounds harsh, and I’ve had people even say “she’s there, you just haven’t noticed or looked hard enough.”

That could easily be.  It could, I don’t know.  I’m not the best person at seeing signs, signals, and allusions around me.  I’m a guy.  Like most guys, we need a 2×4 to the head to actually know when someone – particularly women – needs something.

But this isn’t about me.  It’s not.

The kids, all four, with that smile.
The kids, all four, with that smile.

It’s about my kids.  Two kids in particular.

I don’t know why . . . and you’ll likely have noticed I’ve been seeing the difficult parts of my wife coming out in my daughters lately.  Now . . . my sons.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things that my kids do that remind me of the most beautiful and wonderful parts of Andrea.  When Hannah walks up and hugs me; when Abbi giggles and dances around the house; when Sam sidles up and uncomfortably, nervously asks me something with a nervous laugh; when Noah smiles; they all have those bits and pieces that were the whole of their mother.  When they laugh, particularly together, I can hear her laughing.

But then today . . . and yesterday . . . it all came sort of crashing in with the other parts.

The obsessive, compulsive, obstinate, have to get their way part.

This last couple days was the final work on what the school calls “biography in a bag.”  It’s pretty simple, get some artifacts together that represent your person, dress up like them, put notes together . . . all that goes in a bag and you present it to your class.  The problem is, both Noah and Sam had grandiose ideas but wouldn’t do anything about it until the last minute.  Their reports were well done, well thought out, even completely researched.

But then came the costumes.

Sam and Noah both . . . “I don’t want to look like Sam/Noah does!”

I basically looked at the two of them and replied: “your guys both have suits on!  It’s a suit!  Not a Matlock searsucker suit, not a khaki sport jacket . . . these are guys from 1849 all in the exact same freaking black jacket, white shirt and tie!”

I got the Andrea Andrews cold stare.  Logic be damned, they want their own way.

“What do you guys want to do?!”
“Any ideas?!  I’m open . . . but it’s now 8:30 at night and your only options left are what’s in the house.”
“Daaad….” God, I hate that, by the way.  It’s like they’ve started puberty, too, and they haven’t.  “my guy has a beard!”
“Okay . . . do you think your teachers will let you have a fake beard on since you’re supposed to go to mass before class?  Because all I can do now is split up cotton balls and glue them to your cheeks with spirit gum.  Then you’ll need cold cream to take it off.”
I didn’t think it was possible, but their looks got colder.

2013-04-24 07.00.53“You don’t understand . . . ” was how they started.  They looked at me pissed off, cold, angry, and sure they were right, even though they had no position they could take.

“Let me make this just perfectly clear to you…at this point you have to wear the suits.  Period!  It was 18-freaking-forty-nine.  They only way they’d look anything different was if they wore a zoot suit and those didn’t come out until the 20th century.  So, for the love of God, (and here I heard Bill Cosby coming out of my mouth before I could stop it) you’ll wear suits, with different jackets, and Noah in a hat . . . because I Said So!

The boys rolled their eyes, threw up their arms and stomped upstairs to put on their pajamas.

Abbi looked up at me and simply stated . . . “and there’s Mom coming out of them for you.”

She was right.  Andrea would pitch those same fits.  Logic be damned, if she wanted something, she found a way to get it.

“Yeah,” I told her, “but the problem for them is . . . your Mom and I were partners.  This is a dictatorship.  Beside that, am I wrong?”
“No,” Abbi commented, smiling.  “But were you ever wrong with Mom.”
“Yes,” I said, “though when I was right she would push, and poke, and push and poke . . .just – like – that.”
“Oh, yeah, I know,” said my daughter, getting a bit more down, “and I remember you guys having some real blowouts!”

She was right, too.  Most of those arguments stemmed from both of us digging a trench and refusing to move, right or wrong.

“Yeah . . . difference is I’m right today.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Abbi added, then smiled and said “doesn’t make it easier to deal with.”
“Yep,” I told her, smiling, “should never surprise us that when your Mom decided to show up for us . . . this is how she appeared.”

Abbi looked at me, grinned, and put the period on the night.

“She always did know how to make an entrance.”

Yelling, Shouting, Frustrating!

I hate yelling at my middle daughter.  I absolutely loathe it, as a matter of fact.

The other day I talked about how she was starting to show massive signs of her mother coming through her personality – and not in the best way.  Last night clinched it.



Andrea, you have to understand (if you’ve never read my blog), passed away two years ago, on our eighteenth wedding anniversary.  She went in on a Tuesday with a cough and passed away in the hospital on Saturday.  My daughter, Hannah, was joined to Andrea at the hip, and they were inseparable.  For that reason, I worried about my relationship with my middle daughter after Andrea died.

But back to the similarities:  Andrea, when we were first married and first had children in particular, had a habit of picking the absolute perfect moments (for her) of hitting every horrible emotional button of mine.  She would start an argument (or I would, it takes two, I know!) and get my slow build going.  Then she’d needle the little things that bothered me.  None of them had anything to do with the argument at hand, they’d just come out anyway.  Then she’d tell me to lower my voice, the kids might hear, and when the little ones would round the corner throw an emotional grenade at me so I would just blow.  Right when the kids were there.

She always apologized, but for years I looked like the angry guy who yelled and hollered and she was calm and cold.

Bear in mind, there was never anything evil, violent, or worse that came.  Just anger.  Pure, unadulterated anger that she could fuel like Ronsonol on a fire.  When I told a doctor about this after Andrea passed away, that I worried Hannah would only remember those things, the doctor told me it was best she knew that we were communicating.  “You never got violent, nor did Andrea.  You never threatened to leave.  At the end of the night, you were in the same bed together and up the next morning.  She saw you were talking, though loudly, and at least you were communicating.”

Hannah in the middle
Hannah in the middle

Hannah has learned those very buttons to push, though.  In the worst way.

Where I had an equal relationship with my wife, Hannah has the feeling she’s in that position now that she’s tall, hormonal, and graduating middle school.

She isn’t.

Last night the boys came and informed me that payment for their school pictures was due tomorrow.  This, I knew, but I appreciated the reminder.

Then came Hannah, hormonal, angry, and threw out that hers were due today, “Daaaad!”  and proceeded to inform me that her teacher informed everyone of this, that I was late . . . and wouldn’t stop.  Just informing me wasn’t enough, there was an accusation of impropriety.  That’s where I threw her the Dad glare.

“You know, Hannah, it’s nonsense that your pictures are due a day before your brothers’ pictures.”
“So what, Dad?!”
“Okay . . . let me put it to you this way, then.  You want me to remember this and do what you want, when Abbi and I have done the dishes for the last week.  When you did your chores day before yesterday you didn’t finish.  Dishes were everywhere.  I can’t get any more garbage in the garbage can.”
She started to give me more attitude in the least pleasant of voices.
“For the last time, Hannah . . . I have no money.  None.  I get paid tomorrow!  I have a car that has 12 miles left of gas.  12.  That’s it.  I had to plan it out just this much due to your sister’s college deposit, your tuition, all that!”
She moped.
“In addition, HANNAH!  I have THIS much work to do (picture me with my arms wide, like I want a hug) and THIS much time to do it all in! (picture me with my hands next to each other.)  Then, when I have to do YOUR chores on top of cooking meals, making your lunches – which I do every…single…day…and then cook dinner, laundry, vacuum, dust, all of that . . . I have THIS much to do and THIS much time to do it in. Did I mention that I worked 10 hours yesterday and did THIS much work after it too?!”

Hannah’s eyes got glassy, but she was angry.  I saw it in her face.

“So when I miss some little deadline . . . like a freaking packet of pictures that I know damn well they’ll just make me buy the whole packet next week anyway . . . and your brothers’ pictures aren’t due until tomorrow . . . you might want to cut me just a little slack.  You see when I come home I do more work.  You come home, slog into your bedroom, that is so full of crap snakes could be living on the floor you wouldn’t know because of the layers of garbage all over the FLOOR!”

It’s hear the anger left her face.

“So when I missed one little deadline, or wait until the last minute to fill out a field trip form . . . maybe you might consider cutting me just a little freaking slack?!”

Hannah went up to the same said bedroom and shut her door.  Her sister, Abbi, looked at me and though grinning, I could tell she thought I’d gotten a bit too angry.

My girls...Hannah on the left, Abbi on the right
My girls…Hannah on the left, Abbi on the right

“Too much?”
“No . . . I just don’t know how she got it in her head she could act that way.”
“You know that if it had been your grandma none of this would even happen.  She’d have beaten us then made us do it anyway.”
“Oh . . . yeah.  But you’d have deserved it.”

I sighed.  I hate getting angry.  It really, honestly, doesn’t happen often.  In fact, it’s very rare.  But . . . Hannah is learning the wrong things to do: the button pushing and the manipulation to try and get what she thinks is most important at the moment.  School pictures or food?  Those were the choices I gave her.

Still, I felt bad about how angry I got.

I got up from the couch, moved to head up the stairs to have a calm discussion with her.

But then I looked and realized it . . . she’d managed to disappear without doing the dishes yet again.  Some things never change.


Her Mother’s Daughter

My daughter Hannah is one of the sweetest, happiest, most kind individuals I’ve ever known.

Most of the time.

Noah, Sam and HannahIn the last few months, though, I’ve noticed a change in her.  It’s not for the worse, don’t get me wrong, but it’s like somehow the influx of hormones hit overdrive and I’m having to deal with a teenager who’s still struggling with their own identity.  Now, before you tell me that’s every teenager, I get that.  But it’s never been Hannah.

Hannah was always the little girl joined to her Mom’s hip.  She loved her Grandma – my Mom – sometimes to the ire of Andrea, my wife, who thought she had Hannah as a complete and utter kindred spirit.  Hannah once, as a 3 or 4-year-old, after getting a new nightgown and a pair of fuzzy slippers from my mother wasn’t understanding that my parents were leaving to go home.  Hannah had grabbed a paper bag and inserted her teddy bear, the same said slippers, a second pair of pajamas and was waiting by the door to get into my folks’ car.  When my Mom informed her that she had to stay at her own house Hannah was crushed.  Tears welled up in the corners of her giant brown eyes and she said, huffing in tears the whole while, “but I wanted to go with you Grandma!”

That was Hannah.  The little, loving, sweet kid.

Now it’s Hannah the teenager.

Yeah, sure, there’s the acne that’s started.  More than that is my having to constantly ask her if she’s used the face wash and cleaned up and washed her hair.  I’m constantly telling her to take her hair out of her eyes, not because it bothers me but because she can’t see what’s in front of her and is constantly saying so.

“I’m going to take you to the salon and get you a pixie cut,” I told her recently.
“A pixie cut . . . you know, short hair like that girl on Once Upon a Time.  She looks good in it, and she’s a brunette.”

I’m still pulling the daggers out of my chest she shot from her eyes.

Now, while I deserved that irksome response, others I don’t.  Tonight was the best example.

I got home, unable yet again to cook due to the lack of counter space.  It’s not that my kitchen is too small, it’s because the dishes I’d ordered her to do seemed to have duplicated like rabbits.  I had no pans to cook.

A year ago I made a deal with my kids: I’ll cook.  If you have a meal you prefer, I’ll make it.  I’ll make desserts for your lunches.  Heck, I make their lunches.  I’ll do that, the laundry, vacuum . . . all they have to do is the dishes so I can cook.

Needless to say I’m the only one making good on the deal.

So when I got home to the mess and Hannah walked in, annoyed, yelling – nay, screaming – at her brother and then ordered me to fill out a field trip form it was my turn to give a look that would kill.

But it didn’t take.

“Daaaaaad!  It’s due tomorrow!”
“I know, I got emails from your teacher, the room mother, coordinator . . . everybody.  I’ll fill it out.”
“No . . . you need to fill it out now!

That’s when I lost it.  Truly, completely, lost it.
“Oh . . . really?!  You want to eat tonight?  I have no room, no pans, no forks, no dishes from a kitchen that I was told would be clean when I got home and your most important issue is a form I already knew I had to fill out?!”

She got angry and started raising her voice.  She was, you see, right in her mind.

I bring this up because of several things:
1) she’s hormonal, 13, and just being a teen.  I get that.
2) Before you get mad at me, it’s still true…Hannah gets horrible PMS, just like her mother did.  Now it’s added to the hormones
3) This is the hardest…she’s showing signs and signals of acting like her mother.  Just like her mother.

Andrea, when I first met her, with that smile...
Andrea, when I first met her, with that smile…

I loved Andrea, let me be firm on that.  There were 10 million things about her I adored.  Her anger over random things was not one of them.  It’s hard thing to look into the face of my 13-year-old brunette daughter with the brown eyes and see the angry, fiery rhetoric of the blonde haired blue eyed woman I met twenty-odd years ago.  I also worry because that behavior didn’t help her mother, not one bit.  It didn’t scare me away because I could help her control it.  I don’t want Hannah to have to look at working on that for too many years.

But it dawned on me that there are a number of differences.  I have genes and DNA of my own floating around in her body there, too.  I also am not married to this girl, I’m her father.  Andrea was an equal and usually there was something that stressed her out and I could find the root cause of her anger.  For Hannah, it’s the random stresses of the day she thinks are most important.  Where with Andrea I had to come to compromises and was often far too deferential, with Hannah it’s different.  I love her to death, but this isn’t a democracy, it’s a dictatorship.

“I have every intention of filling out yours, Noah’s and Sam’s forms.  I will fill out your registration packet for high school.  I have it all on a big list in my freaking head.  The thing you should worry about more, though, is the fact that I’m going to take away your guitar . . . again . . . if this kitchen isn’t cleaned up!”

It’s hard for me to see the darker side of Andrea coming out in my child.  Hannah and I have conflicts often because there was such a closeness between the two of them and a distance between the two of us.  We’re not like oil and water.  She hugs me every day, talks to me constantly and the horror I thought she’d face in losing her Mom isn’t as horrific as either of us thought.

Still . . . I’ve come to realize there are things I have to face that genetically bleed through in her hormones, PMS, and mentality.  It’s hard to see and face because it does . . . once in awhile . . . remind me of the best and the worst of her mother.  I miss all of her, not just the good parts, and she unwittingly lets them all bleed through at once.

Hannah and a friend
Hannah and a friend

But by tonight’s end, I saw the best as well.  When the four of them finally stopped fighting and the calm hit the room, they smiled as I read a chapter of a book to Noah and Sam and Hannah peeked in the doorway.

Of course . . . I had managed to fill out all five field trip forms, too.

It was then I saw the sparkle in her eyes and the happiness again.  It was then I saw the smile, the combination of all four of them smiling, and I saw the best of her mother too.

That’s when I knew she really was her mother’s daughter.


Everybody Ought to Make a Change

It’s not often I upset my oldest daughter in a superior fashion, but I did it not long ago.

The catalyst for the anger really isn’t important . . . and it’s personal so I’m not going to go into major details of what happened.

But it upset her, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the first weeks after losing my wife, her mother.  That, in turn, upset me.  It’s not that her crying or anger or upset behavior was what did it.  What made me feel the worst was the fact that I had been selfish and ignored any kinds of signs that built up to this display of emotion.  That was silly of me since I’d been keenly aware of her brother, who had not dealt, completely, with his mother’s passing, either.

But in talking with therapists, colleagues, relatives, friends, hell I talked with all but the plumber who lives down the street . . . it’s abundantly clear that my actions alone didn’t cause what was the teenage equivalent of steam blowing out of her ears.

My oldest, Abbi
My oldest, Abbi

This is a year . . . for that matter, it’s a season . . . full of change for her.  What she didn’t realize is that it’s a major time filled with change for all of us.  In the middle of the chaos of her emotions, still swimming – even if she wouldn’t admit it – from hormones and grief, she is facing a massive change in her life.

This wouldn’t even be the biggest issue.  Every kid – hell every family, and make no mistake, we’re all having to face these changes – goes through the stress and uncertainty of choosing and eventually moving to a college.  This signals a change in your life because your daily life is now under your control and yours alone, for the most part.  Sure, just like me, when she needs help, she’ll call her Dad and I’ll do whatever I can whenever I can.  She’s chosen a school on the left side of the country so she’s not so far away I can’t help.

But this breakdown came in the middle of wondering if she’d actually be able to choose or get into one of the colleges she wanted.  Her dream school was NYU, but beyond the fact that there is a major amount of work and craziness to get into their drama department, she also realized that their tuition – with no financial aid given at all – was equivalent to 2/3 my salary a year.  Not something you should take in school loans for an industry she’ll likely make little or nothing at in the first few years.

But add to that the fact that this change comes after two years of horrific, major changes for her.  She lost her mother.  Her father changed jobs (out of necessity).  We lost our home.  Then . . . for the same reason she couldn’t go to NYU . . . I had to move her out of the private school she was attending due to the fact I just couldn’t afford it.  We went from a dual-income family to a sole provider in a week’s time.

Moving schools scarred her.  It really did.  She lost a lot of daily friendship . . . daily friendship that just reminded her, day after day, after day, that she wasn’t there by sending her emails, Facebook posts, Tweets, and whatever other social media reminders of “miss you!” and “wish you were here!” and “why did you have to go?!”  That wore on her.  Then trying to make friends at a school where everyone by junior year had found their social circles . . . even worse.  Add to that the stress of boys asking cute underclass girls to prom and homecoming and you’re a senior with no date . . . for the same above reasons . . . and her life was crazy.

Then I came along with one little selfish event . . . and it wasn’t even the final straw, it was the half a broken piece of hay that flitted onto the final straw on the camel’s back and we watched the humps slam together and jiggle in their collapse as the camel himself broke in twain.

She’s doing so much better now, but the distance . . . the tiniest distance . . . it’s still there.  The tight-knit, insane closeness we always had isn’t quite as tight.

Part of it is my fault.  Part isn’t.  But one thing I realized, and now she has too, is that everybody ought to make a change.  Sometimes for the best…others because it’s just part of life.  None of us wanted the crazy two years we’ve had, but then it came like a storm through the streets of our lives.  We nailed down everything we could, but sometimes . . . things just float away.  That’s what happened with us.

My gorgeous girl . . . junior prom
My gorgeous girl . . . junior prom

But with a college chosen, school nearing its end, the new life, without people asking about what happened to her Mom, or how much work she has to do, or her father’s personal life or how he cares for 4 kids alone . . . that all goes away.

It was a good thing that for once, she sees this, finally, as a change for the better.

When It All Comes Down

When It All Comes Down: BB King, Live at the BBC

How can I criticize the life I chose to lead or a woman who is no longer here to defend to talk about the life once lived?

That’s a question I get asked in a whole myriad of different ways; different permutations.  They all ask the same thing, though: “how can you possibly be moving on?”

I’m not moving on.  I’m living.

I stated this before: I honor my past . . . all our shared past . . . but I still have to live.  That’s the biggest thing.  When it all comes down, I’ll still be around.  I don’t just survive the loss of my wife, I came to the determination that I need to live as well.  So where in the past I’d watch life go sliding by and be comfortable watching the parade go by it’s not something I can do now.  It’s not a reaction to the loss it’s a realization that I have to live my own way.

Noah Hamming it Up
Noah Hamming it Up

Sometimes I think others fail to realize that the things they’re seeing me do and try and live are new to them.  I’ve had two full years to come to terms with this.  That’s the hard part they don’t realize.  In the days, weeks, and months after you lose your spouse people come up and give you the sympathy and – God help me – the pity.  What they often don’t realize is the fact that the small things that spark their memories: seeing me and the kids; smelling a perfumed lotion; hearing a song; all those things may make them think of Andrea.  They may get sad and it may affect their day in some way.  What they don’t realize is that they get to go back to their day.  Our day, mine and the kids, particularly in the days and weeks after losing Andrea, was totally up in the air.  Our lives – our daily lives – were intertwined with this person.  There wasn’t a singular thing, not one, that didn’t involve her.  Hearing music; doing the laundry; reading a book; watching television; hell, even making toast was something that on every given day involved having that person in the room and part of your life.

Then two years ago that part of my life was over.

The musician in his home studio
The musician in his home studio

Where most people get to go back to their lives and the affectation that touched them is gone, like a singular bullet that may have grazed them in the ear, for my kids and myself we were in the bottom of a crater, hit by emotional bombshells even the minutiae of the day dropped on us.

So early on I did things that didn’t touch the trigger.  I played the guitar and made music.  Those things Andrea only barely tolerated, and while they were cause for many a fight, I still did them.

For the last four to five years we were content, sure, but more than that we were complacent.  I cooked more than the same 3 or 4 meals, I got adventurous.  I cooked desserts and made dinners and got wild with cakes and cookies and whatever I could find.

So by now, two years later, I’m not just surviving, I’m seeing the parade approach and I’m joining it.

That’s not to say all my kids are in the same place.  Everyone grieves, you see, at a different pace, in a different way and we all see the world and the emotions affecting us in different ways.  Some have dealt with the loss and are seeing the wound turn to a scar.  Others are still bleeding.  But I recognize that and can only do what I can to comfort and help.  The best thing I heard this week was my oldest, Abbi, tell me that she and the kids had so much fun on our vacation that they totally forgot, until the end of the day on the 26th, that it was the day their Mom had died.  It wasn’t I was trying to get them to forget, I was trying to get them to live.  They did it, and the day came and went, with honor, love, and dignity.  That was the goal.

But my kids and the world need to know, as the King of the Blues so aptly states up there, “when it all comes down, look for me, and I’ll still be around.”

My amazing kids, taken by "Hunny Bee Photograpy": Amy Renz
My amazing kids, taken by “Hunny Bee Photograpy”: Amy Renz

What Should Have Been

I wrote this over the weekend.  Added to it last night (my anniversary).  Not often I write to my late wife but it seemed like I needed to say it:

This was the weekend . . . the vacation that shouldn’t have been.


At Disney waiting for lunch
At Disney waiting for lunch

Three years ago, I never thought this was possible, I wouldn’t even have contemplated going here with the kids.  The last time we did was – I have to be honest – less than thrilling.

Abbi (our oldest) noticed it first.  The walking . . . moving all through the park at Disneyland and probably walking 5-6 miles in the day, we all realized something: you wouldn’t have done this.  Waiting in line, standing for 45 minutes at a time, taking roller coasters for God’s sake!  None of that was your idea of a vacation.  Oh, sure, when we only had Abbi and Hannah, we came to Disneyland with them . . . and the girls both remembered that over the weekend.  They didn’t remember it fondly, like you would have.    They remembered your complaints about how hot you were; how tired you were; how much you argued with your folks; how you didn’t want to wait for the fireworks.

They reminded me again when we went to the beach.  Abbi wasn’t certain she’d enjoy the beach at all.  But at the end of the day we’d been there for hours.  I stood knee-deep in the ocean next to her and she stood there, looking at the waves until she caught me looking at her . . . then she grinned from ear-to-ear like when she was a little girl again.

Beach 1Noah and Sam loved the day like it was the first time they’d seen the water or the sand.

We all said it again . . . it was a day you would never have spent hours and hours at the beach with no purpose or thought.  Just the idea of running around.  I let the kids dictate the day and it made me insanely happy to see them so joyous.  That’s the word, too, joyous.

We spent so much time that, although I was keenly aware of our anniversary – mine and the kids’ now – approaching…the kids almost didn’t realize what day it was.  They had so much fun that was enjoyment and reckless abandon that they didn’t have time to be sad or melancholy.  They just had pure enjoyment.

That was my intention, too.

I love the kids more than anything.  It’s been hard to realize that we are having tons of fun and enjoying ourselves and then realizing that our fun is completely opposite to the lives we led even three years ago.

It’s not that we never had fun with you, quite the opposite.  But we realized after everything was finished that we’d chosen to do things that you would not have chosen to do.  This was the vacation that we never would have taken three years ago.  We’ve crossed that divide, the kids and I, where enjoyment without you is possible without thinking there was some seismic shift in the world.

Disney 1I’m sorry that we don’t have you here.  But I am also willing to say that we enjoyed ourselves in spite of that, and it didn’t cross any of our minds that we were doing this without you.  This was our first family vacation – the new family, the family without a Mom and wife . . . and we didn’t even realize it until the end.  Sure, I took the kids hoping to avoid the sadness of the day, that was the idea.

This was the vacation that wasn’t supposed to be.  What should have been was celebrating a normal anniversary.  Instead, it was a bigger day.

But I am thrilled to know that the kids and I can have enjoyment.  We love each other and had very fond memories of you and our last trip.  But we also realized that we are moving forward.  We knew it was coming . . . it just came with more of a whimper than a bang.

I love you and miss you, my sweet angel.  And we’re all okay.  Never thought I’d be happy with okay…but we’ve achieved being a normal family, even if it’s a bit broken.

When Creativity Falters

Recording this week
Recording this week

Not that you didn’t know it from the postings, pictures, and other miscellaneous things I’ve posted here, but I’m a musician.

As the 26th of March approaches, there’s been a heavy weight on my shoulders trying to do something different, not necessarily better, than the anniversary of the massive change in our lives.  March 26th, you see, is the day my wife – the kids’ Mom – Andrea passed away.  Last year was the 1st anniversary, and it would have been our 19th wedding anniversary.

I don’t say these things to give you pause or to gain sympathy.  I’ve come to terms with the loss.  I didn’t get over it, I’ve learned to live with it and live is the key word.  Yesterday I used the Dr. Seuss quote “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”  It took me awhile, but I came to understand the meaning of that and smile a lot now, thinking back to the amazing things I’ve done in the last 20 years . . . nearly (but not quite) half my life so far.

So this year I wanted to do something different . . . this year it’s not about the loss or a tribute to who was here before.  It’s truly telling the story and sending a message.

So I picked up my guitar.  Well . . . I should say I picked up multiple guitars.  You can see the stacks of stuff there in the background.  I have a Stratocaster in my hands.  The Dobro in the background.  A Clapton Strat is behind me, and there are something like four amplifiers all wired up and in use for this one freaking session.

I know what I wanted to do.  I wanted to slap people in the face with what I was recording.  I had a song, an arrangement, all of it picked out.

Then creativity faltered.

I’ve had writer’s block . . . both as an actual, wordsmith style writer and as a musician.  In the weeks after our loss I wrote one song and couldn’t write another thing for more than a year.  By the time I’d finally come to terms with things and started recording again the clock on the next CD with my brother had run out.  He’d far surpassed me as both a writer and musician and had filled an entire CD except for the one track I was able to write.  I’m not bitter, I’m enamored with his talent and a little jealous of his abilities, if I’m being honest.

But then came this last 7 days.  I started with one arrangement of a track . . . and the key was wrong.  My vocals . . . well, my vocals sucked!  I can tell the truth.  I pulled out the guitars between chores all weekend and tried tons of stuff.  Monday came and when the arrangement still wasn’t working I ended up screwing around and recording an Elmore James song instead.  Not what I wanted, intended, or needed.  I knew I was in trouble when my daughter told me the one-take James tune was awesome and the others weren’t passing muster.

Last night I totally broke down and went full-bore, Black Crowes meet Gov’t Mule on it.  Five guitar tracks.  Dual vocals.  Harmonies.  Percussion (without drums, which is part of the problem) even mocked up a bass line.


The kids had gone to bed, I tried unsuccessfully to mix the mess of tracks together and that’s what it was . . . a mess.  I threw my tuner across the room, watching the batteries fly out of the back, and sighed knowing I’d likely made more of a mess of things than I should…needing the tuner if I’m going to continue with the open tunings and different arrangements.

I put the batteries back in the tuner, tested to make sure it worked (it did) and wound up all the cables, shut down the amplifiers that I’d put on “standby” mode, and walked unceremoniously to the living room.

I went into the back yard, started a fire – though it was now almost 10pm, and grabbed a book and my Dobro.  I wanted to play the Dobro and reverted to the book, reading the latest from James Rollins and hoping it might clear my head.

I got through about a chapter and in frustration picked up my Dobro.  I mindlessly started noodling around, or at least I thought I had.  Suddenly I realized I’d inadvertently found what I was looking for.

One guitar.  That was it.  A dobro, a slide, tuned to a “G” chord without thinking, I’d found the right key, the right arrangement, and the percussive tone of my fingers on the wood of the guitar all piqued my interest.

I walked into the office and launched the Pro Tools software and hooked up a single microphone.

A shot of me with my dobro
A shot of me with my dobro

And I recorded it.

It’s the song I wanted.  The slap in the face I was looking for . . . just didn’t think was the one getting slapped in the face.
In my head was my horribly creative brother’s voice saying “if you’re putting something down, think about if it’s driving the song, or if you’re just doing it because you can.”

My creativity had faltered and I tried to compensate by over-producing it.

Abbi came home from play rehearsal to find me, content, at the fire and reading.  I still have to polish the track . . . but I learned a lesson in the middle of it all.

I didn’t really need to try that hard.  That applies to so many things in life, doesn’t it?

Walking in Her Shoes

Today I spent a good deal of time with my middle daughter Hannah.

Hannah at the Who
Hannah at the Who

It’s not that I avoid contact with my middle child, that would be silly.  I’m a middle kid…so was my Dad.  It’s not that I avoid time with any of my children.  The horribly accurate fact of the matter is that I have a finite amount of time and I have four children.  Period.  Now, you may chastise me for having so many kids to which I’d reply that it’s really not your place to judge.  We had our children and the idea was that we’d care for them together.

But that wasn’t to be.  I wish that I had all the time in the world, even the time to do every tiny detail with them.  Instead I balance what time I do have between the four of them and most days I don’t do that very well.

The thing that touched me incredibly this weekend, though, was the fact that she shared with me something I knew was bothering her.

Hannah is built just like her mother but looks like her father.  Those aren’t bad things, she’s gotten a lot of the best parts of the two of us.  She has my hair, which is thick and dark.  I always struggled with it, but I’m a guy.  Every girl and woman I know is jealous of Hannah’s hair even though she, herself, takes little or no care of it.

But Middle School is an awkward time for even the most popular and beautiful of people.  For a girl who is already 5 foot 8 and carrying her mother’s bone structure I think it’s more of a struggle than Hannah lets on, most of the time.

Please, before I go farther, don’t take this to mean I harp on this poor girl for her weight, her appearance or her demeanor.  She was closest of all the kids to her Mom.  She was a kindred spirit to her, which means she is a lot like me and therefore harder for me to keep my calm and not get frustrated.  I’ve made her mistakes and don’t want her to make them, too.  The hardest thing in the world for me is to be quiet and let her make them.  Which I do, most of the time.

But this weekend saw her want two things: to start exercising with me; to lose weight.  Neither is a bad thing, but her reasons were veiled, even though I could see through the fabric.

“I don’t want to look like this for my Middle School Graduation,” she told me.  She wanted to get on my weight loss regimen, which is less regimen and more trying to eat less and exercise a little.  I’ve also started using protein shakes for weight loss replacing a lunch meal.  Hannah wanted to do the shakes.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Hannah,” was my response.
But Hannah wasn’t deterred yet.  She told me her weight, which I won’t pass along, that’s not for you to know.  But she said it was too much for someone her age, and she’s not wrong.
“That kind of weight loss program for a thirteen-year-old, though, Hannah just isn’t right.”
“But Dad, I shouldn’t weigh that much!”
I had to tell her the truth at this point.
“Hannah, your Mom, your uncle, even your sister gained weight in middle school.  Unfortunately, you have the genetics.  But look at your uncle, look at your sister . . . none of them are suffering from it now.”
“But Mom was overweight.”
“Yes, Hannah, she was and I have to be honest you’ll struggle with that your whole life.  But bear in mind, Hannah, I was 60 pounds heavier two years ago.  I’m still 15 overweight, but here’s what you need . . . you just need to move.  Don’t come home and plop in your room and sit and listen to music.  Go outside, go for a walk, do things.  You can listen and move.  Movement alone makes your heart pump.  And you need to watch your portions.  When you ask if you can have more dinner portions, think about whether you’re full or just want to eat more.  I give you a decent portion size.  Maybe stick with that.”
She still wanted to do the shakes.
“Hannah, your lunches are healthy.  I give you a sandwich, a homemade treat, and most the time an apple or banana.  You aren’t getting too many calories.”
She looked at the floor.

“Hannah you’re not in trouble and you’re really beautiful.  You just need to wear more flattering clothes and take care of yourself.  Trim your hair, wash up, learn to hold yourself . . . nobody will know otherwise then.”

So today her sister took her out for new clothes . . . clothes that aren’t shorts and a t-shirt . . . and she looks beautiful.  She smiled from ear-to-ear and wouldn’t take off the new sweater and pants I’d paid for.

Hannah and her friend Jake
Hannah and her friend Jake with new clothes

I was happy.  More importantly, so was she.

She’s walking in her Mom’s shoes now, but I walked in hers for a bit. . . and took her for a walk.  She realized she needed to be in better shape, but is going to walk each day – just a little.

My daughter suffers from what every kid her age does – being a pubescent middle-schooler.  None of us, except maybe Brad Pitt, looked good at 13.  But she does.  She just doesn’t think so . . . and that’s okay.  Because I know, whatever differences we have, I see the beauty of her Mom and her relatives in her.

I’ve walked in her shoes.

The Drama of Grief

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.