The Vest

The knob of the front door rattled behind me and the screen door closed. It wasn’t the mail. That had come a half hour earlier. I put down my laptop and got to the door as the van backed out of the driveway. I opened the door and pulled the white shopping bag off of the knob and waved as Sheryl drove off.

Sheryl had offered to sew Elena’s last badge on her Brownie vest and drop it off. Along with the vest, Sheryl had left us some pictures of Elena’s last Brownie meeting earning her dance badge. Later Kim and I looked at picture of Elena learning the Macarena.

We have a big picture of Elena in our living room that is Elena and yet it isn’t. It’s her school picture. She’s very aware of the camera and she’s got a forced smile on her face. You can read her emotions at that moment and so it is very Elena. In fact, it looks a lot like my poses every time our wedding photographer staged a photo instead of just taking a picture of the moment.

But last week I interviewed a photographer in London and he said that the best pictures come from when the subject is totally engaged in whatever they are doing. His advice to those being photographed was that, if they notice their picture is being taken, go back to doing whatever it was that caught the photographer’s attention in the first place.

Elena always knew where the camera was. I had to learn to wait her out until she went back to whatever she was doing. Eventually she learned that I wouldn’t take her picture until she ignored the camera.

This dance picture was like that. It caught my breath. It was a picture of Elena in action. Free. Engaged. Dancing. A happy and beautiful little girl. What a wonderful way to remember her.

Kim held the vest out. It was covered in badges. I used to ask Kim why they got badges for every little thing. Maybe I misremembered, but I thought in Cub Scouts you didn’t get a badge until you showed proficiency in something. The Brownies got badges for attendance.

But you know what? It means that this vest captures what Elena did during that year at Brownies. Here’s the badge when we went to the annual dance. There’s the badge for going on a hike. It’s a time lapse photograph of Elena when she wasn’t looking at the camera. Activities in which she was engaged and happy.

What do we do for those non-Brownies and Scout moments? We need something – a picture, a note in a journal – something to serve as a badge for each of those moments. We need something – a scrap book, a dvd – something to serve as the vest on which we store all of these memories.

Something that takes us back to these moments long after we think we’ve forgotten them.

Published in: on September 27, 2006 at 7:32 am  Comments (4)  


My brother Ethan has said an elaborate set of prayers since he was very young. I don’t  know what his routine is like now, but when he was a boy it involved rituals, careful repetition, physical motions, and a section where he asked for the well-being of those around him. I don’t know if there was a part in his routine where he used to ask for Hot Wheels or to score a goal in soccer. I don’t know if he’s replaced that with grown-up requests. I mainly remember the part where he prayed for the safety of family, friends, and even those who had entered his consciousness from the news.

He called me a few weeks back on his way to the airport. We were both traveling and he was heading towards San Francisco just a couple of hours behind me. I had just picked up the rental car and was heading across 380 to 280. He had to hang up for a few minutes while he got out of the car, stopped at the ticket counter, went through security, and headed to his gate. By the time he called back I was driving north on Nineteenth Avenue towards the Golden Gate bridge.

I asked him if he still prayed.

He said yeah. He’d had difficulties after Elena had died but he now did.

“Why?” I asked.

He thought for a moment. Before he answered, I added that I wasn’t questioning his belief in God or how important his religion was.

“What I’m asking,” I explained, “is why you pray given that Elena died. What do you hope will come out of your prayers?”

I think there are a lot of good reasons to pray. I think Ethan’s prayers are a particularly nice expression. When you take time each day to ask for the safety of family and friends it means that you are taking time each day to remind yourself of those around you. You are pausing a moment to think outside yourself.

If you say a prayer like that because it is good for you, then I think that’s wonderful, If you say a prayer like that because you expect God to respond to your requests then I have many questions. Unfortunately, the answer is usually, “well, because he’s God.”

For example, “with all of the millions of people who say prayers every day wishing for everything from world peace to a new baseball bat, how does God hear our prayers?”

“Well, he’s God. He just does.”

“How does he decide which prayers to answer? A baseball player prays every time that he hit a homerun. How does God decide when to help him hit one?”

“He’s God. He just does.”

I think that that is the God of our childhood. That is the God who sits above us with a huge computer light years ahead of what we could produce who hears every prayer and decides what to do about each one of our lives.

I don’t think that’s the God of adulthood. It can’t be. We don’t expect a micromanaging God. If we believed in that sort of God then we would have some serious questions.

“Why,” we might ask, “didn’t God blow Katrina off course just a little bit. No one would have noticed if the path changed slightly and the hurricane went out to sea.”

There were certainly those in the potential path of Katrina who were praying for just that. “Please let Katrina blow into the Atlantic without hurting anyone.”

“Why,” we might ask, “when God saw the Tsunami rolling across the ocean didn’t he quietly dissipate the wave well before it hit land.”

Why do we pray.

I have friends who pause to say grace before every meal. I’ll be at a conference engaged in a discussion with one of them and the meal will come. He will quietly excuse himself, bow his head, and say a prayer of thanks.

I love that. No matter how busy you are in life’s tasks, you still take time to acknowledge the meal. You take a moment to think about the wonders that went into preparing even the most mediocre meal. You appreciate that you have food and pause to consider what it took to get to you.

Another friend emails me to say that someone we grew up with has cancer and that he is going in for an operation. She asks us to pray for him. Of course, I tell her,  I will. And I do.

I know that this last part is optional but I’ve given her my word. This is a prayer to comfort a friend. This is a “just in case” prayer. I don’t know for sure that it can’t work so I join with others. Knowing that a community of people has pulled around him and is thinking about him may help my friend. It may give him strength. It certainly helps those of us in his circle as we all think of him and of each other.

This, to me, is why we pray. We don’t pray with an expectation that God will do what we ask. We pray because of the good it brings to us in the praying. We pray because of the connection it makes to those we pray for.

There is another kind of prayer. There’s the prayer we participate in at our houses of worship. Those who attend daily or weekly repeat the prayers they’ve said since their youth almost meditatively. We often don’t pause to think carefully of the words we are saying. When we attend someone else’s church it seems cultish and odd – but it is not really much different than our own customs.

These prayers form our connection to our past. They root us in a community. They provide a routine within a world that changes around us. They comfort us in their familiarity.

I watched my dad say the prayers in Hebrew for Elena at her funeral and at her grave side.

I can’t remember when the last time was that I saw him do this. It was a deep act of love for me and for my dead daughter. Maybe even for himself. He reached across a chasm and pulled himself back to the tradition he was raised in. Whether God heard his prayers or not, I did.

And that is why we pray.

Published in: on September 25, 2006 at 7:13 am  Comments (2)  


Elena loved Elvis.

Not the real Elvis Presley. As far as we know, she never met the real one. She loved the Elvis impersonators that she’d see at various events. The cheesier the better. When Elvis would wrap up for the afternoon, Elena would turn to us and say – in the worst Elvis impression you ever heard –

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”

Fake Elvises never shook Elena’s faith that there was a real Elvis somewhere. These proxies for Elvis didn’t look the same, sound the same, or move the same. Still Elena believed in Elvis.

I guess this is the explanation I was looking for months ago about Santa. Elena delighted in identifying the person playing Santa. She knew this Santa was really her grandfather because of the glasses he wore. She knew that another Santa was really the old man who had gotten a little to close to her at the Christmas party when they talked earlier because he smelled of cigarettes and beer. These were just proxies for the real Santa who was obviously way too busy to hang out at malls or end-of-the-year Christmas parties.

Santa was real. Elvis was real.

It’s another link that makes me smile whenever I see an Elvis impersonator. As with Elena, the cheesier the better. I think of Elena dancing along to the version of Hound Dog that she had on CD.

We saw a tall, thin Elvis at the Anchor club clambake a few weeks back. While we were inside eating our bakes, Elvis was outside performing for a handful of people. When we were outside picking up our trays we’d asked Maggie if she’d wanted to see Elvis.

She tipped her head and listened for a minute and then shrugged, “nahhhhh”.

So we headed back inside as we’d done since before the girls were born. In fact, Kim’s mom said that Kim’s been coming to this annual clambake since she was nine years old. I’ve been making this trek to the county fairgrounds for fourteen years.

Kim’s dad gave her the tickets every year as her birthday present. She didn’t feel much like celebrating her birthday this year, but the clambake was a tradition she couldn’t really miss.

We took our trays to the table that Kim’s mom had reserved and set them down. She had some mini table top umbrellas that she put over the food to keep the flies away. Behind us, Kim’s dad worked the raffle wheel. I went and got cups of clam broth while Kim got the drinks.

A man who I only know from these events put his arm on my shoulder and asked me how I was doing.

“Fine,” I said, not really sure who he was and what he was asking.

“It’s the first time since…?” he asked, leaving the end of the sentence unsaid.

I nodded. He glanced at my father-in-law. The empathy flowed through the fingertips resting on my shoulders.

“How’s Tom doing?” he asked.

“It’s tough,” I said. “Elena and Maggie always snuck under the table and helped him with the raffle.”

“Yeah,” he said. He slapped me on the back. Gripped my shoulder and moved on.

Most of the people under the tent were families of police officers or fire fighters. So many had known my in-laws for decades. They’d watched Kim grow up. They knew.

Maggie gave her grandfather a dollar to play. He spun the wheel and someone else’s number came up. He spun again and it was a woman across the way. Maggie won on the third spin. She looked at the available prizes and chose a New York Yankee item to give to Jack.

Elvis finished up and ducked into a room to change back into his street clothes. There were rumors that Elvis didn’t die. That he just needed to escape from all of the attention. Back when I worked in radio I came out of a saxophone version of “Blue Christmas” musing that somewhere in a small town in Michigan, there’s an old man working the slushy machine at a 7-11 smiling at the memories that that song brings.

I wonder if it is comforting or disturbing to Elvis’ family and friends to see the industry of impersonators.

Elvis left the building. Kim and I got another round of clam broth and drinks for everyone and then she and Maggie went back to the raffle.

It was the last set of tickets so the guys would keep spinning the wheel until all the prizes were gone. With each spin the group at the far end of our table would loudly ask if they’d won.

“My ticket is a seven,” one man loudly complained as the same woman as before claimed her prize. He was entertaining the rest of his table and wasn’t really agitated.

“But,” explained my father-in-law, “we called ‘seventy. Seven. Zero.'”

“I suppose,” said the man. And then the same woman won yet again.

“Hey,” he shouted, “what’s this?”

The woman had nearly twenty tickets in front of her. She would win again before all the prizes were gone.

Three prizes left and a different woman won. She didn’t want any of the prizes particularly but she chose a liquid soap dispenser. On the next spin the boisterous man won. All that was left were two stuffed animals. He claimed one of them like it was a state of the art wide screen television set.

Maggie won the last prize and broke into tears. She had wanted the soap dispenser. I think it was because she had used her first pick to choose a gift for someone else that Kim stepped in. She went over to the woman and asked if she would trade. I never would have done it – but it was absolutely the right thing to do. The woman didn’t care what gift she had.

Maggie wiped her eyes and traded prizes with the woman.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you very much.”

Published in: on September 23, 2006 at 8:36 am  Comments (2)  

Pop Quiz

At curriculum night we got an unexpected pop quiz. The parent next to us was chatting pleasantly enough about his kids and asked us about Maggie. His twin boys had talked a bit about Maggie at home so he’d heard stories.

Then he asked if Maggie was our only child.

I was stumped. I didn’t know what the right answer was. As a kind man told Kim the next day, the answer depends on what you are willing to share at the moment. This man has also had a child die. Sometimes he answers four and sometimes he answers three. When you are chatting with someone, they will naturally ask questions about the other kids so your answer is really an indication of how much you feel comfortable discussing at the moment. It can also be an assessment of what you think the person is asking.

Kim paused a moment too and answered that yes Maggie was our only daughter. The man asking went on to talk about other things. And that was Kim’s goal. This wasn’t the place to talk about Elena. It was a simple curriculum night with a room full of people we mostly didn’t know.

Neither one of us thought much more about it at the time. But I asked her about it the next day. I asked her how she had decided what the right answer was. She said she’d just talked about it with this man on the playground and she’d told me what he had said. He’s one of the many people who has been there for us. He came to the wake and introduced himself and gave us material to read when we are ready. We haven’t looked at it yet. He is a Math teacher at Maggie’s new school and he’s talked to her teacher already to help them understand where she is. He’s offered himself to us as a resource without forcing himself into our lives. He seems to know the right way to offer help and to answer these questions of strangers.

The science teacher came in full of energy and excitement. She is doing a CSI type of project with the kids next week. I read about this last year and it looked like a great way to captivate the kids and teach them science. The teachers are setting up a crime scene and the kids have to use the clues to figure out who committed the murder.

She smiled at the parents and said that some of the kids thought that someone had actually died – that there was a dead body to investigate.

I shivered.

Would Maggie make the connection to the last dead body she had seen? I stayed afterwards and talked to the teacher. She was very nice and understood my concerns before I had finished introducing myself. She offered to find another activity for Maggie. “No,” I said, “I just want you to keep an eye out, if you wouldn’t mind. If it looks as if she is reacting badly to this activity can you please call me. Otherwise, I think it would be worse for her to be singled out and not allowed to fully participate.”

I don’t know what the right thing to do was. That night, Maggie was my only child. That night that was the answer that came to me.

Kim and I will make many decisions about who to tell and what to do in light of Elena’s death. Some will be right. Some will be wrong. Some will be right for that moment and situation.

Published in: on September 9, 2006 at 11:03 pm  Comments (4)  

Maggie’s Birthday

Maggie turned ten on Saturday.

At least we think she did. We can’t know for sure.

In the months before we went to meet her in her home town of Hefei in the Anhui province of China, we had documentation that said that she was born on October 2, 1996. When we got there, we had a long paperwork session with a government official. That paperwork said her birthday was September 2.

We asked for clarification of which date was the correct one. The government official was put off that we might be challenging the documents that he had brought with him. We were sad that we had missed Maggie’s first birthday but it meant that Maggie would be able to enter school the same year as all of her Shen sisters. If her birthday had been officially October 2 then she would have been a grade behind where she is now.

She’s tall for her age and – speaking with the bias of a proud father – very smart so she’s always fit in well with her grade level.

We’ve always told Maggie that there was a question as to when her actual birthday is. We celebrate it on September second but you never know. We do know that September 15th is the day we became parents. That was the day we were given this pudgy little gift.

It’s hard to picture her as that round little one year old given how long and lean she’s become. She looked like a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and Jose Mesa (who pitched for the Cleveland Indians at the time). Now she’s tall with long legs and long arms. From time to time we see a look on her face that takes us back to that room in Hefei.

September 29th is the day she first came into our home. That’s also my birthday. But I’ve never been big on celebrating birthday or anything that puts me at the center of attention. I’ve loved being able to share the day with Maggie and celebrate her coming home.

There is, as we’ve recently found, a downside to linking celebrations. Maggie and Elena were exactly two and a half years apart. Our parents always gave the other child a present or two on the birthday girl’s day. “It’s their half birthday.”

Kim and I shook our heads in disbelief. Neither of our parents would have given any of their own kids a present to make them feel better on a siblings birthday. We wouldn’t do it ourselves – but we’re not grandparents.

Of course, that means that on Maggie’s birthday the grandparents think about the gifts not given. Maggie celebrated her birthday with all four grandparents. I have no memory of ever doing that. It’s not that that wasn’t enough for them. Just that something was missing.

On her actual birthday, Maggie had a bowling party with ten friends. Her older cousins were there as well. We had two lanes and the girls bowled for an hour and a half. At one point two girls were bowling side by side. One, an older cousin, rolled the ball right down the middle. It veered and only took down a couple of pins. Next to her, a friend let loose a ball that was way off the mark. It rolled straight for the gutter and would have dropped in for no points except that we had the bumpers up. The ball bounced off of the left bumper. It was so off the mark that it bounced across the lane until it hit the right bumper. It bounced back once more and ended up dead center for a strike. All of the pins went down.

I marveled at the metaphor. I was still thinking about it as I headed out to pick up the ice cream cake. The girls had pizza while I was out. When I got back we sang Happy Birthday and had cake and opened presents.

It was probably the first birthday Maggie has had in six years where she was absolutely the center of attention. I don’t know if she noticed how odd that was.

Published in: on September 8, 2006 at 7:00 am  Comments (3)  

The Second Day of School

It’s a movie cliche. The tension is building in a scene. The scary music is getting louder. A door slowly creaks open and you find yourself holding your breath. Oh look, it’s only the cat. You let your breath out and start to relax and that’s when the director hits you full in the face.

It’s like an amusement park ride. There’s a little dip and you’re just turning to the person next to you to say “that wasn’t so bad” when you hit the big hill and you’re unable to speak for the rest of the ride.

That was Maggie’s second day of school.

Kim and I were prepared for the first day. We had thought through how we would feel about not going to Boulevard with Elena to celebrate her first year at the school without Maggie. As we watched Maggie go into Woodbury for the first time other parents walked over and said very nice, supportive things to us that made the day go as well as it could.

On Wednesday, Maggie and I walked to school. Her backpack was full with her lunchbag, her flute, and her trapper notebook with the first day’s assignments zipped safely inside. We talked about her schedule. We talked about the layout of the school. She bounced next to me and suggested we cross the street in the opposite order of what we had done the day before.

Kim and I had stopped to talk to the crossing guard the day before to ask him what he wanted the children to call him. I introduced Maggie to Mr. Evans and watched as they crossed the street together.

I smiled and turned to head back home and that’s when the director hit me full in the face.

There across the street and a block and a half away I could see the side of Boulevard school. I was unprepared for the shock. It took my breath away. I’d gone from the joy of walking my daughter to school to the sadness of not completing the journey.

Maggie and I talked about it Friday morning. She talked about the three of us walking to or from school. Maggie next to me chatting away and Elena lagging behind. “Wait,” Elena would wail. And we’d turn and see her walking as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders. Her shoulders dramatically down, slumping forward, her arms almost dragging on the ground.

“Come on,” I’d say. We’ll wait.

She’d perk right up and smile and tip her head back and run to us. Maggie remembered her big yellow backpack all the way down to the back of her knees. But Elena wouldn’t stop when she got to us. She’d stick her tongue out at Maggie as she ran by.

This would be enough for Maggie to take up the challenge and run with her. Run past her. When they were two or three houses ahead of me I’d shout “that’s far enough” and they’d stop. Each trying to be the one in front.

Maggie would walk in the front while Elena would stop to talk to Mrs. Simmons the crossing guard. We weren’t crossing the street but Mrs. Simmons would always say hello to the girls and talk to them about their day, about the weather, and about the weekend coming up.

Elena would turn back to see me catching up to her. She’d put her hand in mine and we’d walk to catch up to Maggie. We’d stop at the house with the dogs Lilly and Daisy. The three of us would hold hands as we crossed over to Warrington. As we rounded the corner the girls would always ask if they could run home.

“Sure,” I’d say, “be careful.”

They’d race home as if the outcome hadn’t been predetermined by their relative body types.

“What do you want for snack?” I’d ask when I caught up to them.

“Popcorn,” Elena might say. They argued over who would add the oil and who would add the kernels. Maggie usually lost interest long before the kernels popped so Elena would invariably add the salt. We’d sit at the table and fill our little bowls from the big bowls. The girls would note exactly who had taken how much. They knew not to say so out loud – I hated when they compared who got more – but they clearly assessed what the other had taken and would adjust their own bowl accordingly.

That’s the world I thought I’d still be living. As I looked up and saw Boulevard school in the distance I was confronted by that which isn’t. This year I should have walked Maggie and Elena to Maggie’s school. We’d drop off Maggie. Elena would talk to all of the fifth graders. By the end of the first week she’d probably know more of them than Maggie would. She’d talk to Mr. Evans on her way back and tell him that we were going to her school now. We’d cross the street and be at Boulevard way too early to get in line.

“Can’t I play on the playground?” Elena would ask.

“Sure,” I’d say and I’d take that big yellow backpack from her and watch her climb and swing and run.

We won’t be doing any of this.

At the end of last year, Mrs. Simmons retired. I don’t think I’ll ever know who replaced her.

Published in: on September 5, 2006 at 6:42 am  Comments (2)  

First Day of School

We moved into our current house about a month before Maggie’s first day of kindergarten.

Kindergarten starts here a couple of days after the older kids start school. The teachers have two days of meetings with the kids and parents. Except for that first year, Kim helped organize those orientation days – but that’s another story.

Maggie and I walked up to the school to meet with her teacher: Mrs. Rimedio. The children sat together in one group and the parents sat together off to the side. The first person that Maggie met on this first day was Alex Thompson. Mrs. Rimedio explained the school day routine to the kids and then walked them around the room showing them where the various activities were located. She then set them to work on a quick project and talked to the parents.

I tried to listen but I kept looking back over at Maggie. She looked so grown up and independent. I laugh now – but then, just shy of her fifth birthday she looked so old. Mrs. Rimedio walked us out to the door where the kids would line up each morning and told them exactly where and how they should line up. She said goodbye and gave each child a soft high-five on their way by. She introduced the routine that would comfort them the rest of the year.

Maggie bounced all the way home. She tried to pretend it was old hat. After all, she’d been to preschool for three years. But she was excited. She liked her teacher. She liked her classroom and she was ready for her new school.

A new school. She would be in Boulevard for the next five years.

The first day of school we took Maggie’s picture on the front porch. Elena was pretty used to much of her life being devoted to Maggie’s firsts. I’ll have to look back – I don’t remember if we took Elena’s picture too. But we all walked up to school for Maggie’s first day.

Maggie couldn’t stand it. We’d come so early and she wasn’t first in line. Tomorrow we would come earlier.

All this came rushing back this week on Maggie’s first day at another new school. All of the fifth graders leave the comfort of their elementary schools and join up at Woodbury. Last week Kim took Maggie for a scavenger hunt. Maggie met Mrs. Drosdek, her homeroom teacher and joined other fifth graders in a search around the school that helped orient them to where everything was. I get lost in Woodbury all the time, but Maggie and the other nine, ten, and eleven year olds don’t seem to have a problem.

First day of school. “What time does she have to be there?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Kim said. “She’s marked tardy at 8:40.”

“O.K., she’s late at 8:40, but when do they want her there?” I asked.

Kim gave me the didn’t-I-just-say-I-don’t-know look. You know the one.

At 8:15 Maggie stood outside for her first day of school picture. It was the first jarring moment for me. Kim and I were trying to keep this day all about Maggie. Maggie had stood alone for her picture in Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. Even in third grade, Elena’s first day was two day’s after Maggie’s because Kindergarten starts later. The only year they shared a first day of school was last year. We’d assumed we’d be taking their picture together til Maggie graduated high school and then Elena would have a couple of years to herself.

We were wrong.

We finished the pictures and headed off to Woodbury. Maggie bounced as much as her overweight bookbag would allow. She had that excitement – that wealth of possibilities – that freshness. It was like opening a new box of crayons. So much promise.

We crossed the street and found the line and stood with Maggie while we waited for her group to go inside. Maggie didn’t see anyone she knew in her own class. It didn’t look like anyone from Boulevard was in there with her. They’d told her that she’d have at least one person she knew in her class. She shrugged.

And then someone tapped her on the shoulder.

It was Alex. Maggie would be starting her new school with the same girl she’d started her last school with. She and Alex were together again.

Maggie smiled. She would have been ok, but you could feel the shift in comfort level. We watched her walk into her new school with her new class. Not yet ten years old looking so grown up and independent.

Published in: on September 1, 2006 at 9:37 am  Comments (3)