Silver Linings: Dad’s Dead But Now He’s Not a Jerk

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My dad has been on my mind lately. He loved this song. Or, this was his favorite weather. Worse, dad would have laughed so hard at that one. It goes on, as you can imagine. Happy memories all. I have to reach, now, to grab the things that bothered me. The days when he vehemently disagreed with my political lean and railed about the president are gone. I’d like to think that he wouldn’t have cared for this particular president either. I’ve recast him as an equal opportunity critic. His racist and sexist jokes would have been particularly tone deaf these days (not that they were ever acceptable). I’ve rewritten his jokes to tell me more about the men he worked with, the soldiers, fellow mechanics, and snow plow drivers. His blue collar, boot-strap life didn’t understand the rarefied air of diplomacy or academia.

I rub like smooth rocks all the things I learned in his final year, months, days. I learned that he was soft inside. As gentle as his hands were rough. I’ve thought about the jellybeans he munched the final week. My efforts to find a favorite candy bar. The conversation the nurse and I had about getting him out to smoke one last time. It took me several precious days to figure out that was what he was waiting for. For my brother-in-law, the rough and rugged one whose insides reflect my dad’s outside, to bring him those special small cigars. By the time I solved the puzzle, he couldn’t have gotten into the wheelchair.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about when my breath hitches on the way to work. Or as I sit here typing, crying, for the first time in awhile. I’m thinking about how he chuckled when he found a fun new Halloween toy and the time he spent rigging a loudspeaker and mic to frighten 1980s trick-or-treaters. I’m thinking about eating pie with him in the back bedroom a couple of Thanksgivings ago, how he happily twitched his feet like his father, savored his pie like his mother, and hid from guests like his daughter. I’m thinking about how he would have tsked at the leaves for not changing on schedule and how he’d deeply enjoy the extra time watching the game instead of raking.

So yes, I’m crying. I wish I wasn’t. But I’m happy because all the sour, sticky, smudged parts of him have been buffed shiny and clean. I miss him terribly but I’ll take what I can get.

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Right Now

RR started the third grade last week. I thought about getting myself a walker and and AARP subscription and then she flashed me and waggled her butt and I figured we had a few years left. She’s more though, in every way. Longer legs, stronger arms, she eats more, she tells more jokes, she has more friends, she says she’s doing geometry, I see her reading books with words like persnickety. I love this new bigness and the unexpected developments it brought along. She rides roller coasters now, fast ones, grown-up ones, and she greets the terror with laughter. Which goes a long way toward describing RR generally.

She’s not fearless but she is right in the center of any given moment. When she gets off the roller coaster she’s laughing, not because she wasn’t scared in the middle, but because that moment passed and now it’s all bright sunshine and smiling faces and the thrill of having done something daring. She she does it again and again because the fear, it happens, but she lands on exhilaration every time and that’s enough. She has always been this way.

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This picture of her four-year-old self shows perfectly how she sinks down deep into every experience. Here, she’s picking raspberries under the jasmine and a particularly spindly tomato plant. I can almost hear her softly humming. I know none of the raspberries made it into the house that day. She’s our garden fairy. She’s of the moment. There are times when I think she can’t possibly last and we can’t possibly keep her.

That got more grim than I expected. And after that adorable picture, too! This has been motherhood for me this year. Constant U turns back from anxiety and what if into the here and now. Start again. And again. It’s not too bad. It reminds me to stay right there with RR, in that moment with her, relishing every last second. But, since it seems sort of contradictory to say all that and not do it, here’s eight.

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Down With This Particular Sunscreen

I’ve never been so happy to have sent RR to what some of our friends lovingly refer to as “the chicken school”. And while they do tend the chickens, they also tend a garden, act as custodians to the local wildlife, make herbal teas, read, keep a fish pond to grow fish to eat, do complex math, paint, and play. Apparently I need to add activism to the list because the sunscreen petition I signed this week was a work of art.

Because you’d have to be a dedicated zoomer, here is the text of the three foot long petition, spelling uncorrected:

CHANGE THE SUNSCREEN:
a teacher sined it.
it is slimy
it makes us sweat
it is icky. WE hate it.
it smells.
got a sunburn with it once.
it stings on scratches.
it swelled up a mosquito bite [Inset: “this did happen” with drawing of wound for proof.]
you haft to take off the top to get it on you then it spills on the floor you can’t get it up you can slip and get hurt.
it is easy to get it in your eyes.
[Inset: A picture of the sun. Written on the sun it says “ha ha I will burn you” Under the sun it says “because the sunscreen does not (underlined) work”]
it soaks into your skin.
your eyes water a lot when you put it on your face.
[Inset: Picture of a beetle saying “OW”]
when you want to play on the monkey bars your hands will slip and you will fall and get hurt.
does not (underlined, emphatically) work [Inset: picture of a head/face with red cheeks, forehead, and nose.]
we hate it
WE HATE (underlined) THE SUNSCREEN
it is only 30 percent other sunscreens are way more than 30!
it says “fragrance free” but it has a strong fragrance.
it burns our face [Inset: sad smiley face]
it spills a lot (underlined in bold)
we want a CHANGE (in orange marker)

This is all accompanied by a well-done doodle of Wilma Flintstone proclaiming “I hate Terra Sport” and a page of glorious signatures which I haven’t included although I very much wanted to. Some of the signatories include “parent of X” and “x, the Boss”, “teacher X”, “X the dad of X”, tiny writing, big writing, first names, both names, cursive and not, and one parenthesis after a teachers name in which is scrawled “(As long as it doesn’t have chemicals)”.

I proudly added my signature to the thirty other names. RR has complained before that it stings but it’s sunscreen, I trust the school, and I realize it’s practically impossible to keep 30 sunscreens separate. I’m going to tuck this memory away for the next time she brings home a sheaf of beautiful drawings but blanks when I ask her what 2 x 5 is.

And You Get A Trophy, And You Get a Trophy…

I have opinions about participation trophies. Not that I’d begrudge a kid a little trophy for showing up, I just haven’t particularly supported that approach as a way to motivate or reward them. You know the arguments – hard work is the reward, they won’t value real trophies, it dilutes the work of the kids who deserved them, etc. As with everything parenting though, everyone has an opinion and everyone is right.

RR received a trophy for swimming this summer. She had just barely graduated past Flailing and Sinking when we signed her up. We didn’t put sign her up for meets at the start since it wasn’t at all clear she’d survive the experience. Thank goodness for lifeguards. I was also concerned that swimming would go the way of soccer where we spent most of our time watching her pick flowers and pass the ball to friends who hadn’t had a turn yet, her team or not. Or perhaps ballet, where she spent her time gazing in the mirror. I wasn’t at all confident this would be a success.

But she liked it. RR, who spends a lot of time being neutral about things, actually liked swimming. So we signed her up for swim meets. And she liked those too, once she got over the disappointment of it not being a swim meat.

RR: Mama, what kind of meat will it be?
Me: A swimming compitition, where you race the people next to you.
RR: Yes, but what kind of meat will they put in the pool? Pork? I’m hoping for pork.
Me: …

She wasn’t good at swimming and she didn’t win a thing. In fact, she mostly kept other little girls from coming in last. But she went to practice everyday. She tried hard. She coped with the weekly disappointment of not getting a ribbon and of not coming close to winning, even in the slowest heats. She has even been enthusiastic about the idea of continuing over the winter.

This weekend we had the awards ceremony for the close of the season. The look on RR’s face when they called her up was priceless. She was amazed and shocked and grateful and overwhelmed. She kept holding it above her head as all the kids came to the front, bouncing with excitement. She high-fived her friends (RR has friends!). She was breathless when she came to the back to show us. I had no idea that a participation trophy could make such a big impact on a tiny person. She was so proud of herself and it was clear – that little gold swimmer packed more motivation to try harder and get better and go faster than anything anyone could have said to her.

So here’s to yet another milestone: participation on a team and motivation to do it again.

Make a Decision

You know, I’m a competent professional. Part of my work is to make decisions, forecast the future, design plans that will move us forward into new places, and sprinkle the whole thing with innovative ideas. I’m good at it and I like doing it. I’m not a waffler, although at home I’m deliberate; at work I make decisions relatively quickly, accepting that if there are mistakes we can right them the second or third time. That would be a problem in fields where decisions are exceptionally costly or life-saving, but I work at a library, folks, none of my decisions are going to be disasters.

My wife likes to consider all of the possible options before settling on a decision. We’re incompatible this way (at home, I’m not always interested in options) but we are very compatible in that the time I prefer to make a decision (again, at home) is pretty close to the time she needs to consider all of the options. I like to think of it this way – she will lay out a range of options and then I can make a quick decision after having taken awhile to consider them all and we’ll end up landing in about the same place. You might recall that we had paint samples on our bedroom wall for a year.

My mother wants me to make instant decisions about things that are important to her. And then she wants me to do those things right then and there. Under duress, I can usually accommodate one preference, but not the other. For example, she wanted to know if I would take a lovely fountain and a fleet of end tables so that she didn’t need to move them. I said I would on the spot but they will certainly hang out in my basement until I’ve had time to consider where I’ll put them. This will take awhile, my brain space is occupied by other things, and it bothers me not at all that we don’t know where we’ll put them yet (or ever).

It agitates her that I sit on things past the .15 seconds she has provided for a decision. What dates am I thinking of traveling? Where am I planning to go? What do I think I’ll do when I get there? If there’s not a plane ticket, hotels, or a friend’s couch involved, those decisions may well come once I arrive. When we went to Disneyworld, I bent my entire will toward planning out the trip (although leaving plenty of flexibility) but this is not my regular approach. I head somewhere down the middle but closer to the last minute.

For example, earlier this month Debra and I decided that we might go away for the weekend. Two weeks prior, we decided on a location. A week prior, we made a hotel reservation. Three or four days prior, we decided what we’d do when we got there and we decided when to leave about 15 minutes before we got in the car. Of course, this is for a relatively local vacation. I don’t consider most of that last minute but I watched my mother practically tremble with agitation and judgement as we waltzed through this process.

Today I’m spending the afternoon with her wrapping up the tail end of her packing. I am well aware that she will expect me to make more split decisions about what I want to take and leave. I’d prefer to decide later once I’ve brought it home. I’m not asking her to delay any moving things and my decision will have no impact at all on her. I just want the chance to consider the greater picture and, if she behaves as she usually does, this is going to drive her insane. I’m not feeling particularly accommodating today. I’m trying not to think of this as a looming disaster.

I accept that there’s a happy medium here and that the stress she’s under doesn’t give her the flexibility to move outside of her comfort zone. The impending conflict is completely within my control. Clearly, the teenager in me is trying to act out – I could make decisions quickly, I just don’t want to. If I can just get that cantankerous 15-yr-old to cool her jets, I might be able to make it through this.

 

A Smaller Loss

I don’t know if there’s a post marking the arrival of my parents and the subsequent overhaul of life. I looked but didn’t try too hard which I think is a good summary of how I feel about the last four years. When we suggested they consider this state over their current one and over the two inhabited by my sisters, we did so partly for their sake (better medical care! lower property taxes! four seasons!) and partly for RR’s, who otherwise would have, at best, annual contact with her only set of grandparents. It was not for my sake. I think that much is clear.

We had dinner with them, and then my mom alone, every Sunday. Our lives changed in dozens of small ways and some very significant ones. We have new electricity in the basement and new plumbing in one bathroom but the lights are crooked and the silicone lining the sink is shifty at best. Weekend relaxation ended at 3pm but we had multiple Sundays on a porch, in the fall air, with the scent of apple pie and pot roast wafting through the house. I got to spend the last two years of my father’s life with him and that’s unquantifiable. There are no more sentences for that because I can’t do it justice.

We were right that the medical care would be important. The property taxes didn’t turn out to be lower. And, in the end, winter is why my mother is moving away. That’s the kind reason, the one she drags out for friends. It’s so cold, she says, and my other daughter is in Arizona. That’s true. It’s the family she’s spent the least amount of time with and the daughter she probably likes the best. Although, to be fair to my other sister, it’s just me she doesn’t click with. But mostly, here is where my dad died. I don’t think she can get away fast enough.

As we come up on the moving date, I’m parts sad for RR and part happy for Debra and I. This is going to reduce stressful conversations and increase weekend opportunities. I’ll be able to take a deep breath. We won’t have to move a tv, or bring over supper, or change plans for anyone but us. She’ll be happier on the other side of the country. To be honest, I also could use a break from the constant reminder that my dad is gone. In the end, RR seems to be the only casualty. It’s (hopefully) the final loss in two years of losses. And just think, now we have an excuse to vacation in Arizona again!

 

Eight!

RR is eight. You guys, it’s so much fun to see the delight passing to horror passing to acceptance on the faces of our work acquaintances who realize that oh my god we’ve known these people and their baby since she was in utero and it was that long ago?! Followed by (I suspect) how am I that old/how has almost a decade gone by/why are you (or I) still here? I don’t feel overwhelmed myself, just happy she’s still the delightful little person she always has been (Wolverine-ing aside) and that we’re all still coming out on the good side of life.

I don’t often think of eight in years. Sometimes it’s milestones like number of teeth lost, inches grown, clothing sizes (you guys, we’ve finally left 4T shorts behind. miracles), stuffed animals acquired, or shoes outgrown. Sometimes I think of it in terms of child development expectations: on-grade skills in reading and math, check. Increasing self-awareness and social skills, check. Behavior ups and downs, check.  I’m not proud of this, but eight sometimes is calculated in why nots: Why can’t she ride a bike? Why doesn’t she talk about friends more often? Why does she insist on liking My Little Pony? Why doesn’t she complain about playing alone? Why doesn’t she tell us about her day? Why can’t she swim faster? Why isn’t she a genius at something?

Most often I think of eight in terms of accomplishments. When I do, I’m amazed at how wonderful, smart, charming, cheerful, and strong she is. She’s an artist with skills well beyond her years. She speaks with adults with growing confidence and finesse. Her cursive writing is lovely. She reads stacks of chapter books and has preferences about what she likes (adventure) and what she doesn’t (“boring family stuff”). She writes and illustrates her own chapter books and graphic novels. She tells jokes (and remembers the punchlines). She has mastered gliding on her scooter (I never thought it would happen). She can swim (I never thought that would happen either). I finally witnessed her roll over which I say in jest but, if you’ve been following along, you know that it’s a developmental baby holdover that exemplifies RR’s nonchalant approach to growing up. Her teachers think she’s wonderful and her school is helping her grow to be independent and considerate, a gardener and nature conservator, empathetic and inventive, a herbalist and animal care-taker. I value those things far more than being a genius at something.

Eight will bring 3rd grade, a bigger backpack to hold all those books, more adventures, and a bike ride come hell or high water. Eight is also going to pack in a heap of delightful surprises, I’m sure of it. Onward.IMG_6473