The Kitten

Patti got a kitten and, after checking with Kim, invited Maggie over to see it on Friday. But Friday was such a long day. We'd started at the school at 7:30 that morning to enjoy some time with the teachers and staff. I'd taken Maggie to soccer practice after school and we were back at school at seven at night for an international potluck. And so at nine o'clock when Maggie wanted to see the kitten, I said no.

It's not the first time Maggie hasn't spoken to me for a while and I'm guessing it won't be the last. We were supposed to go to an exhibit at the Science museum Saturday morning, and when Maggie woke up she didn't want to go. She reminded Kim that we'd promised her she could see the kitten today, so Kim let her go over to Patti's house. Kim hadn't put a restriction on Maggie's time because Patti's family was all set to go somewhere. Patti ended up staying with Maggie who wouldn't leave the kitten's side.

A couple of hours later Kim called over there to check on Maggie. When was she coming home to go to the museum.

She wasn't. She didn't want to go to that dumb exhibit anyways.

Kim said, "you can see the kitten later but the exhibit leaves tomorrow. The kitten will be here for a long time."

Maggie dug her heels in. Kim said o.k. and hung up.

Then Kim and I looked at each other and I cried. Who knows how long the kitten will be here for. We'd thought the same about Elena. We don't need to take a picture of her without her tooth right now when she lost it. We'll take a picture of her gap toothed smile tomorrow. Except that she died tomorrow. Thank goodness Maggie had snapped the picture of her "right now". We don't need to take her to the store today, she can go with me tomorrow. Except that she died tomorrow. Thank goodness she asked me nicely a second time if she could come with me to the store and we went together.

It's hard to know if the kitten represents the same thing to Maggie as it does to Kim and me. It could be that this same incident would have happened five months ago and we would have just thought it was Maggie being difficult.

We made Maggie come home so that Patti and her family could get ready for the birthday party they were hosting later in the day. Maggie still didn't want to go to the exhibit. I was still pretty sure that this was more of her way of punishing me than a reluctance to go. I asked her if she really didn't want to go or if she was just angry with me. She let me know that it was both.

When we've talked to people who have suffered losses they always seem to say the same thing: "there are bad days there are good days." I never understood what that meant. But it's true. Without knowing in advance, without knowing why, some days are really difficult and some days aren't quite so difficult. Friday night through about noon on Saturday was one of those days for Maggie.

Published in: on April 30, 2006 at 6:41 am  Comments (1)  

Leaping

I'd catch a little movement out of the corner of my eye and turn to see Elena flying towards me calling my name. I'd catch her and hug her and then tell her she needed to warn me before jumping at me. What if I hadn't seen her in time to catch her.

But I always did.

There's an exercise that is used at team building workshops that you often see parodied on sit coms. One person stands a few feet in front of another. The person in front is supposed to fall backwards and the person in back is supposed to catch them.

The portrayal of this in situation comedies is as formulaic and unfunny as their too frequent portrayal of a pregnant woman stuck in an elevator during a power outage. The person in front has difficulty trusting that the person in the back will really catch them. The person in the back promises that they will. And after many false attempts the person in front finally is able to trust they will be caught and falls back. Unfortunately, the person in the back has turned to help someone with something or tie their shoe or take a cell phone call.

Now the writers are able to extend the joke and provide the happy resolution we all hunger for. The person in the back, often with the help of the workshop leader, begs for another chance promising they will be there this time. This allows the person in the front to bring up all of those times the person in the back let them down in the past. The person in the front agrees to try one more time. Depending on whether the writers are going for comedy or a happy resolution. Either the person in the back catches the falling friend or they stand up at the last minute to take care of something and again leave their friend to fall to the ground.

Elena was too short to fall backwards and have anyone catch her. She would climb on furniture and jump. She'd climb up on the kitchen counter every morning to get her breakfast cereal from the cabinet. Every morning I would grab her under her armpits and lower her back to the ground with the cereal box in hand. Sometimes she'd just climb on the kitchen counter to jump into my arms.

Usually she'd climb onto the arm of a chair or sofa and jump at me or Kim. We'd be standing talking to each other or to someone else and she would jump at us and we'd catch her. It's one of those things you do almost without noticing.

One day we missed. It could have been Kim. It could have been me. But whoever Elena had jumped at, didn't turn around in time. She bounced off of our back and dropped the foot to the ground.

She was very hurt. Not physically. She was hurt that we hadn't caught her. We reminded her of the thousands (probably tens and we probably told her millions) of times we had told her to warn us before jumping. She still felt that we should have caught her.

Til the day she died, Elena still took her leaps of faith. Sometimes she warned us she was coming but often times she didn't. We caught her when we could.

Published in: on April 29, 2006 at 8:18 am  Comments (1)  

Puddles

I'm looking for a puddle this weekend. I'm not particular about what sort of puddle so I'm pretty sure I'll find one.

There are some people who are picky about their puddles. Not too big. Not too deep. Not in the middle of the street. Not too muddy. Not too dirty.

Me, I'm looking for a puddle. And I don't much care when I find it.

There are some people who only jump in puddles at certain times of the day. Not first thing in the morning. Not when I need to visit someone important later. Not when I'm tired. Not now.

Sue was telling me about a child all dressed up in her yellow splashing boots who was looking for a puddle to splash in. Most of them had dried up but she found this one pitiful little puddle and jumped in feet first and left with a big smile on her face. There's something about putting on boots and jumping into puddles with abandon.

There are some people who only jump in puddles when they're wearing the right sort of boots.

Actually, I understand not jumping in puddles without the right shoes. You could walk around in squishy socks the rest of the day. You could be wearing really nice shoes that you don't want to stain.

If I find my puddle while I'm wearing nice shoes, I may jump in anyway. When I catch people glancing down at my shoes I'll study the look on their face. If it's disdain – I won't bother. But if it's amusement or curiosity, I'll tell them about the puddle I saw that I had to jump in.

Of course, if you don't want squishy socks or water soaked shoes, you can always take your shoes and socks off and roll up your pants and splash around.

Once you're willing to do that, maybe a puddle isn't big enough. Maybe a fountain. A fountain where they allow you to go wading through. Or the edge of a lake or a river or ocean.

Too much planning. This weekend I'm looking for a puddle.

Published in: on April 28, 2006 at 1:25 pm  Comments (3)  

Tulips

"What did you bring back from Hamster-damn?" Elena asked.

"Amsterdam?" I suggested.

"Yeah, Hamster-damn. What did you get?"

"Mom bought tulip bulbs."

"Cool. Can I see?"

And she saw. And Kim and the girls planted the bulbs long before the spring would come when the flowers would bloom. I think that's part of the joy of flowers like tulips. You haven't exactly forgotten that you planted them, but when they come up it's always a nice surprise. It's nature stretching and saying "look at me".

Dirt covered the bulbs and then snow. Winter came. Elena died before the bulbs bloomed. In that interval between planting and blooming, so much happened.

When you're a kid, you're so impatient when you plant something. You want to see the results right away. Elena had a bean plant that she watched grow over a period of months. Finally, there were beans that we could eat. Beans that came from the plant that came from the single seed she planted.

Adults have the long view. What's the hurry? A watched pot never boils. A watched plant never blooms. Be patient. It isn't that long until spring. Not too long til the plant is out in all of its glory. The tulips are out now. We have many different colors, all from Hamster-damn. My favorites are these striking red ones that have a vibrant yellow core. The two colors bringing out the best in each other.

Look, Elena. Look at these bulbs you planted. They're here for such a short time and then gone. Like you. They are so beautiful and fragile. Like you.

I looked out the front window at our flowers and those of our neighbors. Something caught my eye across the street. There was a man picking three tall yellow tulips from the house right across the street. His back was towards me and so I thought it was our neighbor until he turned and looked around him and ran a hundred feet to his car. He got in with his flowers and drove off.

I was angry and indignant. I felt powerless. I couldn't stop him. There was no one to report him to. There was no point in telling the neighbors what had happened. It was so fast and he was gone. There in their front yard was a gap where the flowers had been.

It was like watching someone come and pluck Elena from our garden and whisk her away. I stood like I had two months before not quite sure what had happened not quite sure what to do.

Published in: on April 27, 2006 at 9:50 am  Comments (3)  

High Numbers

It seems like forever ago when I worked in Urban radio at WDMT under the name Fudge. It was such a great time for me. The name wasn't my own choosing but I embraced it and had a lot of fun playing with it. Somewhere packed away in a box somewhere is my station jacket with "Fudge" embroidered into the lapel. At Christmas time I was Santa Fudge and when I moved from weekend overnights to Sunday afternoons, someone in sales suggested we call the show "Hot Fudge on a Sunday" and she sold a sponsorship to an ice cream place.

When I moved to the morning team, first as the jock and then as the news man, I developed other bits around the name. My favorite was "Fudge's Fortune Cookie." It was my take on the astrology type of aphorisms that so many people like to start their day with.

Each morning we would open Fudge's fortune cookie and read the piece of advice. A typical day might have something like, "Someone close to you has been trying to tell you something. Find a way to help them." It's been twenty years since I've thought about that morning bit, but in some ways it gave me something positive to try for myself each day.

I would also suggest a color that people might wear that day. "Make sure your outfit has a bit of blue in it today." I didn't feel that part was working and tried to drop it only to have people call and ask what color they should wear that day.

The final element of the bit was a rating for the day on a scale of one to ten with ten being high. I called it "Fudge's Factor". I would spin a cosmic wheel and announce that "your Fudge factor for today is a six."

I'm a Mathematician by training so it seemed to me that it would be reasonable to either use a normal distribution where lots of days were four through seven and very few days were ones or twos or nines or tens. Another approach could have been to make each number equally likely and just use some random number generator to choose the next digit.

On the second day I received a phone call that changed my mind.

The first day had been an eight and the second day was a three. A listener called at ten after I was off the air and asked to speak to me. I was picking up some extra money by working in the traffic department after my shift (scheduling commercials) and so it was pretty easy to find me.

The listener said that he liked the new fortune cookie bit and was enjoying the show but that he had a suggestion. He said, "it's hard enough to get up in the morning and prepare for the day ahead without hearing that the best you can expect is a three. Even if you know the d.j. totally made up that number, it does something to you. Lot's of people don't know that you make that number up. For them, you're telling them how their day is going to be. You should mainly choose numbers that are six and higher."

I immediately saw his point and thanked him. He was right. And there is so much more. You often make the day into the one you are anticipating. If you think you are heading for a really lousy day, you will often subconsciously enable it to be just that.

From that day on, most every day was a six or better. Most were seven, eight, or nine. From time to time a day would rate a six and very seldomly they would be four or five. There was maybe one ten the whole time I did the bit.

Opening Fudge's fortune cookie for today, "Take the time to write and mail a note to someone today. Make it an old fashioned note that you have to put in an envelope with a stamp and an address on the outside." Wear something with a spanch of yellow on it. Today's Fudge factor is a nine.

Published in: on April 26, 2006 at 9:11 am  Comments (3)  

The Pink House

When we used to drive Elena to pre-school, there were multiple ways to go. They were all pretty much the same time and distance so it didn't really matter much which way we chose. After a while of driving this way or that, I used to ask Elena which way she wanted. Most of the time she would ask me to turn down the street with the pink house.

As we approached the street we would invariably get caught at the traffic light on the corner. She would never say "take a left turn at the light" she would say "take a left turn onto that street with the pink house." As we pulled up to the light she would point at the pink house and say "there."

Life was so simple. You drive 'til you come to the street with the pink house and then you turn left. Then summer comes and you take a well deserved break from school. Then autumn approaches and school starts up again. Your life will soon be the way it's always been. So you go out to the car in the morning and head off towards Mayfield and Lee and you pull up to a familiar intersection and the voice in the back seat says "take a left turn onto that street with the pink house." She points as she always has and says "there" but you look left and there's no more pink house.

Over the summer, someone had painted it white. This corner doesn't look much different than other corners any more. The light changes and people behind you beep you back into the present moment. Maybe you turn down the street, maybe you don't. In either case it's not the same.

The next time we pulled up to that intersection on the way to pre-school, Elena realized that she would have to explain things differently to me if I were to have any chance of getting things right. I slowed down for the stop light and Elena said slowly and deliberately as if I might not understand her if she spoke at full speed, "Daddy, take a left turn onto that street with the house that used to be pink."

I didn't understand then the lessons she was leaving me for later- for that time when I would be the guy who used to drive Elena to school. Then I was just a happy dad playing games with his daughter on their way to school.

I smiled and turned. From then on the decision was the same as before. We would either go straight or turn left at that intersection. She sometimes still called it the pink house even though it was now white and sometimes, when it seemed that I needed more information, she called it the house that used to be pink.

Published in: on April 25, 2006 at 3:52 pm  Comments (2)  

The Girl Who Couldn’t Say Please

Most of the time Elena was the easy going, agreeable child. She would cry and get upset, but you could jiggle a shiny object near her and distract her. She would come running in, usually complaining about her sister. She'd say, "Maggie isn't letting me use the computer."

"Elena," I'd answer, "what did I say about telling on each other?"

"You don't like it."

"Right. Go work it out."

"But, she won't give me my turn."

"Tell her it's your turn."

And so, from the other room I'd hear Elena say what any six year old would say, "Dad says it's my turn and you have to let me use the computer now or he's going to put you in time out."

And so it goes.

She might come in crying because she'd fallen off of something. The easiest way to quickly find out if she was hurt was to suggest another activity. "Want to help me measure the ingredients for vanilla ice cream?"

The crying would stop immediately and she'd look at me and ask, "can we use the vanilla that has the little dots in it?"

For the most part, it was easy to get her out of any emotional dead end that children get themselves into. Maggie, on the other hand, would get mad and wouldn't know how to stop from doing things that would get her in more trouble. Maggie spent a lot of time in time out. I have a hard time disciplining the girls without laughing. They know that they're still punished but sometimes what they've done is so pitiful, transparent, or just plain stupid that I have to laugh.

Maggie has taken to talking meanly to Kim and me when she has a friend over. We knew this was coming some day but we figured she'd be a teenager and impossible in many ways. It's not acceptable and we don't mind putting her in time out and letting her friend continue to play.

The other day, Maggie couldn't bring herself to say "I'm sorry." I sent her to time out and told her that she could get out of time out as soon as she felt ready to say she was sorry. After ten minutes I wandered out to check on her and asked if she was ready yet. She just glared at me. At a half hour Kim went to check on her to see what the problem was. Maggie explained that she could say she was sorry but she knew she couldn't do it in a nice voice and that I wouldn't accept her apology. She was waiting until she could say "I'm sorry" in a nice enough voice that I would believe her.

Elena seldom got herself in the same rut. Sometime in January she snapped an order at me from the dinner table. She looked at her popcorn chicken and called into the kitchen, "bring me the ketchup."

"Say please," I answered reflexively.

Silence.

"Elena," I prodded, "say please."

Silence. She couldn't possibly think this was going to end up well. She had often come in when Maggie was in time out and asked "why doesn't she just say she's sorry and be done with it?" But somehow it was different. She was not going to say please.

So, I came back to the table. Elena made gagging noises as she tried to eat her chicken without ketchup. Forget about the fact that she'd eaten it that way many times. She was out to make a point.

"Maggie," Elena said, "can you please get me the ketchup."

Maggie looked at me for permission. I shook my head and told Elena that she needed to ask me and she needed to ask me nicely. This was no longer about the ketchup for either one of us.

I went to the kitchen to make tea and heard Elena say to Kim, "please, Mommy, please can I have the ketchup?"

Kim answered, "of course you can, you just have to say please to daddy."

"I can't," she cried.

"That's silly," Kim pointed out, "you've said 'please' to me and you said 'please' to Maggie."

I returned to the dining room. Elena gritted her teeth and kept her lips stable as she glared at me and said "hhhhleeeze".

"What?" I asked laughing.

And then magically Elena laughed too. "Please, can I have the ketchup?"

"Sure," I said and got it for her.

"Daddy," she said, "now my food is cold."

Published in: on April 24, 2006 at 8:50 am  Comments (6)  

The Sky Above

My first real job was teaching in the Oberlin College Upward Bound program just after my freshman year of college. It was a summer job that took me years to leave. I came back year after year to teach Math and live in the dorm with some of the most amazing high school students I ever met.

During my second summer there, my sister got a job working for the college food service and she would work in the kitchen serving meals and getting to know the kids. Even better was that that was the summer we first got to know each other better.

Each morning I would get up early, shower and get dressed, and then knock on doors to make sure the students were getting up for breakfast. Then I'd head out to the porch that connected the male and female sides of the dorm. The porch sat in front or the dining room that also connected the two sides.

Jill would usually be out there before me. Sitting on a metal chair either alone or talking to Ambrose Cook. Every morning she'd say hi and then she'd look at the sky and say "isn't the sky so blue today?" Ambrose would roll his eyes. I'd glance at the sky, not really looking, and agree with her non-commitally. It took me years to pause to notice the blue sky and the smells and sights around me. But I never forgot that it was Jill and her daily routine that pointed me in that direction.

Years later when Kim and I were first dating, we had one of those evenings that didn't go particularly well. It was early enough in our relationship that we didn't realize that these blips were no big deal. As we left the house where we'd had dinner I saw the biggest moon that I had ever seen. It was riveting. Kim was already in the car and was about to close the door.

"Get out of the car," I said.

"No," she answered quickly. She thought the evening had gone so badly that I was going to leave her there, miles away from her apartment.

"Get out of the car," I insisted. "You've got to see this moon."

"No," she said again still sure that it was a trick.

I shrugged and stood there looking at the moon as it hung low in the sky and large. It seemed closer than usual and slightly orange. Kim cautiously got out of her seat and stood up. She kept herself positioned in the wedge of the open door and kept one foot inside the car, but she could see the moon.

I still love the night sky. I don't think I can identify or name more than a handful of stars and constellations. I can't pick our nearest neighboring planets out from all the others. I do, however, like being bathed in the beauty and the expanse. I love that as we look up at the sky we're seeing different times represented across the sky. The light from each star originating at a different time from each of the other stars.

On a clear night, when the girls were in the bathroom brushing their teeth, I would stand outside on our upstairs back porch and look up. They would see the porch door open and come out and join me in their pajamas. They would point out the stars they knew from their visits to the planetarium. And then we'd stand quietly together looking at the sky like it was a cosmic campfire until one of them burst with something else she wanted to share.

Yesterday was Maggie's first spring soccer game for this year. Thunderstorms and chilly weather had been forecast but it was a stunning April day in Cleveland. It was warm but not hot. The sun was bright and the sky was blue. We stood with other parents on that beautiful day watching our daughters run and play for an hour and a half. I'm sure I drove other parents nuts as I repeated half to them and half to myself, "what a beautiful day."

Published in: on April 23, 2006 at 7:56 am  Comments (2)  

Shadows

Maggie was busy entertaining her fifteen month old cousin Lydia. Lydia mainly likes running around and giggling, bringing objects from one person to another, standing behind a glass door and waving goodbye, and putting things that she shouldn't into her mouth. So Maggie's job consisted mainly of taking things out of Lydia's mouth, waving goodbye back, and taking one object from her and giving her a different one. Then Lydia climbed up on the couch and looked around. She smiled and let herself fall face forward onto a stack of pillows.

Maggie walked over to Lydia and Maggie's shadow crept up on Lydia before Maggie got there. "Look Liddy," Maggie said. But no amount of pointing or moving back and forth could get Lydia to notice the shadow and not the body producing the shadow. Lydia looked curiously at Maggie weaving back and forth not noticing the shadow play being produced behind her.

There will come a magic moment when Lydia will notice her own shadow. She will be walking one morning early and see the long shape on the sidewalk in front of her. She'll notice that the shape stops when she does. She'll raise a hand cautiously and notice that the shadow waves back. Just when she has gotten to know her shadow well, it will disappear. When she comes out of pre-school at noon the shadow won't be waiting. The next morning it will be back.

Elena loved playing with shadows as we would walk. "Look Daddy, the shadows are holding hands." And then, like all children, she'd run ahead so that she could step on my shadow's head. "I'm standing on your head daddy," she'd laugh. Maggie loved making shapes with the shadows. She'd make dogs, and ducks, and foxes.

Then one day, a different day for each, shadows weren't such a big deal. Sure, every once in a while one or the other would make a remark about shadows but they were a given. If you had light and an object you would have a shadow. "Duhhh Dad, it's science."

But shadows aren't just science. Shadow is how you interact with the light. And sometimes your shadow is big and sometimes it's small. Sometimes you stand on someone else's head and sometimes your shadow is complete covered by someone else's. The best times are when your shadows combine to make new shapes.

Like shadows holding hands.

Published in: on April 22, 2006 at 7:45 am  Comments (3)  

Carrying Elena

Nothing made me feel more like a dad than carrying a sleeping child up to bed.

There was something about looking back as we pulled into the driveway and noticing one or both girls asleep in the back seat. Quietly and gently I'd unbuckle one of them and lift her up and wrap my arms around her gently. At the same time I'd feel as if I was protecting her from the world while really the protection went the other way around.

Her arms would flop on either side of my head and her head would gently lay on my shoulder. Whether covered in a heavy winter jacket or in a summer t-shirt, I would feel her presence deeply and intimately. The smell of milk drunk from a sippy cup. The feel of her favorite stuffed animal or blanket still clutched in her sleeping hand.

I'd pause at the door and move the screen out of the way, not letting it bounce on her sleeping body. Bracing her in one arm, I would unlock the door and carry her up to her bed. Standing next to her bed I would look down at her like I'd looked at her mom after a slow dance at the end of a long night. Not wanting the moment to end, I'd pause just a bit and we'd breathe in unison.

Time to disengage. I'd support her head with one hand and her body with my other arm and lay her down in her bed. In the winter I would gently unzip her coat and roll her one way to take one sleeve off and then the other to take off the other sleeve and pull the coat from under her sleeping body. I'd take off her shoes, pull the blankets up to her chin, and kiss her goodnight. Most times I'd stand there holding her coat and watch her sleep for a couple of minutes.

As Maggie grew up, she stopped falling asleep in the car. Sometimes she'd ask me to carry her to the house, but it wasn't the same. Her arms now gripped me as I carried her and we chatted about her day. Still a wonderful moment – just different.

As Elena grew up, she also stopped falling asleep in the car all the time. But as we would pull up our street her head would be rolling and her eyes would be closed.

"She's faking," Maggie would tell us.

Elena was smart enough not to say, "I am not." She would feign sleep so that I would carry her into the house and up to bed as I had when she was a little girl. The routine was the same except at the end. She would squint up at me as I finished taking off her shoes and her coat as if she had just woken up.

"Hi, Daddy," she'd smile.

"Hi, baby," I'd smile back. "Can you brush your teeth and put on your pajamas?"

"O.K."

I never knew if she let me carry her in for her benefit or for mine.

Published in: on April 21, 2006 at 7:26 am  Comments (11)